Cloud will ensure no rain on Ucas’ parade

Revamped IT systems are ready for admissions deluge, states Curnock Cook. Jack Grove writes

July 25, 2013

A new and improved admissions system should prevent a repeat of the crashes that have dogged A‑level results day in recent years.

That is the message from Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, who has expressed confidence that a system that employs cloud technology for both applicants and institutions will withstand the pressures it will face on 15 August.

“A major project has been under way to ensure stability and resilience in our systems, particularly under the peak loads typical on A‑level results day,” Ms Curnock Cook said.

Ucas faced questions about its systems’ strength just last month after a breakdown left thousands of students unable to reply for several days to offers made by universities.

Last year, some students reported that they had been unable to accept offers on A‑level results day because of problems with the Ucas system that allows universities to keep track of applicant data.

Dominic Shellard, vice-chancellor of De Montfort University, said that his institution had received “hundreds and hundreds” of queries from “very distressed” applicants. He called on Ucas to address “massive” problems that hampered De Montfort’s recruitment during clearing.

In 2011, a crash shut down the Ucas Track service, which allows students to see if they have been accepted into university, for two hours when traffic to the site quadrupled.

However, Ucas’ IT infrastructure has been revamped over the past two years to address crashes caused by peaks in activity on results day.

Data obtained by Times Higher Education under the Freedom of Information Act show that £3.1 million has been spent on external consultants, mainly in IT services, since 2010 – in addition to work done by Ucas’ own IT team of about 100 staff.

Last year, student applications were operated using a cloud-based system for the first time. This year, universities will run off the same cloud-based platform.

“During confirmation and clearing, all our critical services for applicants, universities and colleges will be delivered in a highly resilient cloud environment that gives us a tested capacity several times in excess of the expected peaks,” Ms Curnock Cook said.

“The project to deliver these improvements has involved major investments with external partners,” she said, adding that Ucas’ internal IT team had been expanded as well.

Ms Curnock Cook said that her organisation, which processes millions of transactions matching students to university places each year, was ready for A‑level results day, when more than 400,000 people are expected to log on.

“We have about 40 extra personnel on site to provide sophisticated monitoring of systems and the expertise on hand to manage smooth operations,” she said.

“In addition, we have enhanced our contact centre capacity with an additional 300 customer agents on results day.”

The problems with the Ucas site in June occurred before most services were moved to the cloud, and Ucas members were kept fully informed about the affected services, she added.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com

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