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Applications from would-be students are increasingly less likely to be seen by an academic as universities turn to new ways to sieve the burgeoning number of applications, writes Rebecca Attwood, while Jon Marcus reports on the challenges facing US institutions

August 14, 2008

Fifty-seven minutes - that's the fastest-ever turnaround time on a student's application to study at Coventry University.

Last year, the university's admissions service claimed a first when it went fully online and paper free. Missing Universities and Colleges Admissions Service forms are a thing of the past, and response times are much more speedy.

"It allows us to communicate much more quickly and effectively with students," says Claire Bamforth, director of the recruitment and admissions office. "We can send applicants information and update them on what's going on in the university from the moment they apply so that they feel part of the university at a very early stage.

"The system allows us to track where an application is at any time, and we have target times to work to. Everything we do is underpinned by good customer care skills and transparency - and everyone, no matter when they apply, is treated exactly the same."

Bamforth is convinced it is no coincidence that since the switch there has been a 15 per cent increase in the number of students making Coventry their first choice.

"Institutions are - to varying degrees, and in varying subjects - increasingly in competition with one another, so they are quite legitimately looking for approaches to recruitment and admissions that might give them a competitive advantage in some way," says Anthony McClaran, chief executive of Ucas. This competitive pressure, he argues, is one factor driving a shift towards a higher degree of professionalism in university admissions.

Response times such as those recorded by Coventry would be impossible to achieve without new technology, but they also depend on the university's centralised system. Institutions all over the country are switching much of the responsibility for admissions away from individual departments and into central admissions offices run by dedicated teams of professional admissions staff. Practice varies from university to university and from faculty to faculty, but the fact remains that thousands of students are now accepted or rejected every year without a member of academic staff ever setting eyes on their Ucas forms.

According to one estimate, 70 per cent of universities operate admissions systems that are at least partly centralised. And the trend is not confined to new universities - others that have made the change include the universities of Nottingham, York and Warwick.

"With centralisation, the role has been taken from the academic admissions tutor to some extent - (albeit) not completely," explains Janet Graham, director of the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA) programme. "It is not that the academics don't have the final say - the criteria are drawn up by the academics, with the administrators, and those criteria are applied centrally. If there are any queries, they are always referred back to the academic staff. That is increasingly common."

The University of Exeter centralised its undergraduate admissions service four years ago, bar applications for teacher training and the medical school. It has also centralised two thirds of taught postgraduate admissions. The decision was controversial at the time but Steve Smith, the vice-chancellor, argues that it has been a success. "We had about 24,000 applications this year for about 3,500 places. We found the key issue was one of consistency: how do we make sure that someone who applies late is treated the same way as someone who applies early?"

All forms are examined by a member of the admissions staff who has received significant training in analysis of the Ucas tariff and the personal statement. "It was resisted by some at first, for the obvious understandable reason that we were taking decisions out of the hands of academics - but then, of course, it was pointed out that that's how the American system works, and it doesn't seem to harm the top American universities," Smith says.

The pressures on academics in today's mass higher education system are cited by many as one reason for this trend. "Academic staff are under pressure on all sorts of other sides - delivery of research, delivery of teaching. So there is a very legitimate question about the best use of the time and resource that your academic staff represent," McClaran points out.

The University of Dundee brought together its admissions, recruitment and marketing functions into one department ten years ago. "It is all about providing a 'seamless' service," says Gordon Craig, director of admissions and student recruitment. "It is important to get a quick response because some of the research has shown that if a student is undecided, they will accept the first offer that is made.

"Academics are setting the standards - if they feel the quality of students one year is not as good, then that is reviewed on an annual basis and they can decide to make the entry requirements more difficult.

"In the past, I think too many academics saw admissions as being just an admin task and didn't respect the fact that we are professionals in the area. Now their confidence has grown, and we are considered to be the experts. It works very well as a partnership."

Laura Kishore, chair of the Academic Registrars Council (ARC), has come across similar attitudes. "For a long time, and I still detect it sometimes to my dismay, there has been a view: 'Oh well, admissions - it's just common sense, isn't it?' It has, in the past, been a matter for the most junior or sometimes least research-active members of academic staff to deal with. There hasn't always been any real element of training for those kinds of staff - (but) all of these things are disappearing now," she says.

Many in the sector see an emphasis on staff development as a key part of the move towards a greater professionalism. Graham explains: "Professionalisation is certainly underpinned by training... The admissions process, even in the past four years, is (becoming) increasingly complex - the amount of legislation universities have to abide by, checks through the Criminal Records Bureau, disability legislation, age legislation, child protection legislation. It is no longer a job that can be done by one person necessarily, because it is so complicated and time-consuming."

Universities often offer their own in-house training; Ucas also offers training sessions and is working with the University of Westminster to design a validated continuing professional development (CPD) programme. "I think the very existence of a professional certificate or diploma is a recognition that there is a professional body of knowledge here, a body of good practice that can be learnt and practised," claims McClaran. "Perhaps it begins to answer the point often made about university administrative and management functions generally, which is that there can sometimes be a lack of professional recognition for the very high level of activities being carried out."

McClaran also argues that professional updating is made easier by centralisation. "The traditional model... does provide some challenges because it means that you've got a very large number of people that you need to keep professionally updated and there is obviously a greater risk of inconsistencies across the institution," he says.

It is hard to imagine a more distributed admissions system than the college-based decision-making that operates at Oxford and Cambridge.

At the University of Cambridge, applicants invited for interview and assessment are likely to be seen by three or four academic staff. But decisions are not made by colleges in isolation. The selection process involves three stages of comparison to ensure that the students selected are those of the highest standard: all the applicants in a subject to a given college; all the applicants in a subject across the whole university; and all the different applicants within each college.

Training needs and staff time bring a big overhead, acknowledges Geoff Parks, director of admissions for the Cambridge colleges. "There is an awful lot of resource dedicated to it. Each application, we reckon, is given four to five person-hours' worth of consideration," he says. But the fact that those with a significant say in selection are the very people who will be teaching the students brings a high degree of motivation, and competition makes colleges strive to select the best students.

"The other clear experience we have is that - particularly with the levels of achievement in the public examinations system now (and) at least for the sort of selections we are doing - you cannot simply do it on paper. The only people who are really in a position to judge the academic ability of individual applicants are experts in their subject," Parks argues.

Another motivation for doing a professional job, he admits, is the media's fascination with Oxbridge admissions. "The last thing any college wants is to be on the front page of a newspaper because of something going wrong in the admissions process. Some colleges have been there in the past, and the memories linger."

The media's obsession with admissions was highlighted in a speech this year by John Denham, the Universities Secretary. "It is clear to every informed commentator that university admissions procedures are only one part of a whole series of decisions that can lead an individual to their final university place. Yet media discussion about fair access is usually dominated by the admissions process. And it can be a pretty poisonous debate," he said, pointing out that universities that try to take a student's background into account find themselves accused of social engineering, while those with more students from privileged backgrounds find their admissions staff accused of snobbery and social bias.

"The public debate continues and, while there is no evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with most admissions, ultimately the debate is corrosive of public confidence... The answer lies, surely, as it so often does, in openness, transparency and accountability," Denham suggested, before announcing a push for universities to publish transparent admissions policies.

McClaran says: "In the context of the current public debate about admissions to higher education, institutions want to make sure that they are doing the job as well as they can - and not just doing it as well as they can, but being seen to do it as well as they can."

The ARC's Kishore notes that politicians have become increasingly involved in admissions in recent years - most infamously, in 2000, when Gordon Brown, who was Chancellor at the time, accused the University of Oxford of elitism after it failed to accept the "straight-A" state-school pupil Laura Spence. "They see it affects a huge number of people. At the same time, higher education institutions are very keen to protect their autonomy," she adds.

"There are still people wondering whether the system is fair. I don't think we'll ever eliminate those doubts, but I think we must do more. It is becoming more and more important for institutions to be transparent and explicit about their admissions processes."

Universities have also been spurred on by the publication in 2004 of the Schwartz review on fair admissions, which was intended "both as a catalyst to action, and as a practical guide to fair admissions". It concluded that admissions processes are generally fair but that there was room for improvement.

The report was followed by the Quality Assurance Agency's revised code of practice on admissions, and the creation of the SPA, which was set up two years ago to help institutions share good practice on admissions. "Our main aim is to support the sector in doing what it does even better than it does it already," Graham says. "That will involve not just identifying good practice but highlighting where things aren't perhaps as good as they should be... the whole point is about raising the game."

The SPA's work so far has included auditing the use of admissions tests, working with the sector-led Delivery Partnership to encourage universities to make entry requirements for their courses clearer and more accessible, and developing guidance on admissions policies.

Durham University has been reviewing and updating its admissions policy and procedures over the past year. The decision was motivated by the Schwartz report and the QAA's revised code, and by a feeling in the institution that the time was right to take stock, according to Anthony Forster, pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching. "In some areas we thought we were doing very well, but in others we were lagging behind best practice," he says. "We hadn't codified our admissions practices in the way I think we now have to. We'd relied on a rather informal approach."

The university's admissions decisions, which it bases predominantly on the Ucas form, will still be made directly by academics. "We've got university-wide policies and practices, but they are delivered at a local level within our academic departments. Academics retain an absolutely key role in actually making decisions about admissions," Forster stresses.

"In Durham, we are recruiting very capable students, and we need to make sure that our academic staff are fully engaged in the process of identifying those people who are going to benefit from an undergraduate experience at Durham rather than handing that process over to administrative colleagues who would have a very standard set of criteria - but that is never going to be the whole picture. It is not simply a 'tick-box' approach to thinking about how one admits students."

The university will offer training to all new staff, whether they are making decisions or handling forms, and will run annual refresher courses for staff in summer, while a sub-committee of its learning and teaching committee will monitor admissions processes.

"I know that in other universities there has been a much stronger feeling that centralisation is the best way forward - that it allows academic colleagues to step aside from the time commitment and all that is involved in the admissions process," Forster acknowledges. Yet the strength of feeling among Durham academics - their determination to remain involved with admissions - shows the commitment of the university's academic community to learning and teaching, he believes.

"I also wonder if this reflects something about the size of Durham - it is still a relatively small university, although very popular. In other institutions, issues of size and scale may no longer make it feasible," Forster says.

One admissions tutor at a pre-92 university adds another point: "The increase in numbers of applicants has certainly made it more difficult to treat applications on an individual basis. Academic admissions tutors are also confronted by a growing number of foreign qualifications, some of them quite obscure. From that perspective, it makes sense to give professional administrators more of a role and allow them to take over some of the burden."

The SPA's Graham, whose organisation has visited more than 100 higher education institutions in the past two years, believes that there are benefits to both traditional and centralised systems and concludes that there is no "one size fits all" solution when it comes to admissions. "It looks to me as if there are probably more benefits moving towards a centralised system, but it has to be something that suits the institution.

"If they can demonstrate that, whichever mechanism they are using, they are using it fairly, transparently and underpinned by good practice and an audit trail within their institution, that's fine," she says.

Research due to be published this autumn is set to give a verdict on just how far universities have come since the Schwartz report was issued four years ago.

The ARC's Kishore concludes: "With a greater drive towards professionalising the whole process, writing it down, making it transparent and explicit, I hope we are starting to go a long way towards busting some of the myths that have been around for years regarding university admissions."

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