Fit for the future

The demands on Ucas are growing and changing in nature. Ucas’ board must adapt to reflect this, says Steve Smith

February 14, 2013

Steering the right path between supporting applicants and also the range of institution members requires a strategic board

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service - which manages more than 3 million applications to our institutions every year - has never been more important to a sector that is weathering multiple challenges, perhaps none more germane to our very existence than the successful recruitment of undergraduate students.

And Ucas has itself faced new demands as it responds to the volatile admissions patterns brought on by changes in tuition fees, the AAB grades policy and the shifting sands of qualifications - all against the backdrop of increasingly divergent approaches from the four nations of the UK that it serves.

As a director of Ucas for four years, and now as its chair, I have watched this complexity being reflected in the growing agenda of issues requiring the attention of its board. The days of simple counting of applications and admissions have been replaced by the need for deep analysis of applicant trends; the A level, for many years the common currency for the majority of aspiring students, now supports only about 50 per cent of applications; different countries of the UK need different services; and the student “at the heart of the system” brings new demands for information.

Those using Ucas services rightly demand efficiency, with automated, digital services capable of withstanding sharp peaks of demand. Last month, Ucas processed 91,000 applications on 14 and 15 January - twice as many as in the same 48-hour period last year. The systems that put Ucas at the forefront of online services just eight years ago now need and are undergoing a fundamental refresh requiring the board’s oversight over millions of pounds of investment.

Over the past year, Ucas has undertaken a review of its governance. Although the current model has served well over many years, we recognised that a group of some 30 people, drawn from nominated and elected constituents, observers and co-opted members, was not ideal to fulfil the increasing demands for scrutiny and stewardship of the organisation. New skills were needed to understand complex programmes of work, highly technical operational issues, the balance of resources devoted to different areas of the business and to safeguard the assets of the company, as required by company and charity law.

Our proposals for a smaller, skills-based board of 13 people, to include the chief executive, will ensure that we maintain a majority of heads of institutions and secure expertise from higher, further and secondary education. However, we also leave room to include expertise in areas such as finance and audit, IT and experience relevant to the operational delivery of a high-stakes public service. Importantly, we have also committed to ensuring that there is a designated member to represent the interests of each country of the UK. A new nominations committee will ensure that the chief executives of Universities UK, GuildHE and the Association of Colleges contribute to decisions about appointments to the board.

I have also been personally determined that the new arrangements should preserve the integrity of Ucas as a membership organisation. Although institutions, as legal members of Ucas, have important powers to call meetings and to sanction the continuing service of directors (including the chief executive), we are also proposing to create a new council. The Committee of University Chairs has agreed to nominate a chair for this body, which will be formed with specific nomination rights for the four countries of the UK, as well as from a wide range of sector bodies in higher, further and secondary education, along with student representatives. This council has rights enshrined in the articles of the company to hold the Ucas board to account. It will become an influential voice for admissions issues.

Ucas is going to be in the front line of huge changes in the admissions landscape. Steering the right path between supporting applicants and supporting the wide range of higher education institution members requires a strategic board. That is what these governance changes are intended to achieve.

I hope I can count on my fellow vice-chancellors and others to support these recommendations at the annual general meeting on 6 March.

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