Academics are losing control over student admissions as a series of universities look set to transfer responsibility for recruitment to central administrators, The Times Higher can reveal.
In a controversial departure from the traditional model, Exeter University has confirmed that a central admissions department will handle three quarters of its undergraduate admissions.
This means that most Universities and Colleges Admissions Service forms - once scrutinised by academic admissions tutors teaching within a prospective student's chosen area - will never be seen by departments.
Exeter is the first traditional university to make such a definite commitment to centralised admissions. Others, however, including Warwick and York universities, look set to follow suit.
Academic admissions tutors warned this week that the change would dehumanise recruitment. Some speculated that universities were keen to exert greater central control to make sure they complied with the Government's widening participation agenda and Office for Fair Access policies.
Nick Wright, the head of admissions at Exeter University, said: "It's a big, big change, and we will only really know in four years' time how it has worked."
There had been some opposition to the change in his institution, he admitted. But he said: "There is a lot of pressure on academics to do research. Timewise, this will certainly release them from a burden."
He stressed that departments would still set the criteria by which the central admissions team selected students.
Mr Wright added that, although most Ucas forms took only ten minutes to scan, it took an average of 57 days for a form to reach the top of the pile under the old system. Centralised admissions should halve this time.
Warwick University confirmed this week that it was centralising undergraduate recruitment for ten academic departments after it successfully completed a two-year trial to centralise admissions to the history department.
A Warwick spokesperson said: "We'll no doubt roll it out further next year if all goes well."
York University began a similar pilot this year, in consultation with departments.
Connie Cullen, director of admissions and schools liaison at York, said:
"Many admissions decisions are reasonably straightforward and don't require academic expertise."
She explained that core admissions staff would always prioritise student recruitment, whereas admissions tutors in departments had other commitments and could not always be available to deal with inquiries.
Ms Cullen said: "It will enable us to bring a level of professionalism to admissions and some economies of effort."
Peter Lewis, admissions tutor for the department of English and drama at Loughborough University, was unconvinced about the wisdom of the shift, saying it would lead to tick-box style admissions.
He said: "But this isn't just the management of statistics, it is dealing with human beings. The closer you get to central administration, the more you are concerned with quotas and grants. I'm paid to teach and excite the minds of young people. Our priorities are different."
There were nuances on a Ucas form and in personal statements that would be picked up only by someone who regularly taught students, "as opposed to organising them in ranks", Professor Lewis said.
"I think it would be better to give allowances to admissions tutors in departments who care about the students, rather than making it an extra job."
Peter White, senior admissions tutor for the School of Computing, Communications and Electronics at Plymouth University, said would-be students often needed advice from someone with experience in their chosen field.
He said: "The proliferation of course titles can be daunting for pupils and parents. There may be a more suitable course that matches their career aspirations."
Professor White admitted that his admissions role did involve a lot of additional work. He said: "It comes in peaks and troughs. At the moment, Ucas forms are rolling in at a steady rate so it is quite busy. Easter to summer is quite quiet, then all hell breaks out in clearing."