All systems go here at admission control

August 27, 2004

The A-level results are out, clearing is under way and those making the offers are working at full stretch. But it's not just an August job, says Chris Willmott, who clocks up more than 180 hours a year on applications.

When asked recently to estimate the time I spent over the past year as admissions tutor for one of our undergraduate courses, I was surprised that it worked out at more than 180 hours.

There are only a couple of times in the year that admissions becomes the main focus of my work, this month with A-level results out being a case in point, but a range of other admissions-related tasks need to be carried out at other times. There are, of course, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service forms to read and evaluate and occasional open days to be hosted. Even these jobs are becoming ever more time-consuming.

Perhaps as a consequence of pressures on school timetables, students seem increasingly reluctant to visit during the week. This means universities are having to respond and offer open days on a Saturday. Larger numbers of applicants are also wanting to visit our department according to their timetable, rather than ours. "I'm doing a tour of Midlands universities with my parents next week; can we visit you at 2pm on Tuesday, after I've been to Nottingham and on our way to Warwick?" comes the question. What is an admissions tutor to say?

Ours is a well-respected course, but the fact is that applicants with good A levels who want to do science are a dwindling population and I would be cutting off my nose to spite my face if I said no when our neighbours of similar standing have clearly said yes.

The diversity of modern students also adds to the workload. I am very enthusiastic about the increasing numbers applying to university from non-traditional backgrounds. I do, however, feel that it is particularly important to meet face to face with applicants seeking to join us via an access or foundation course. Not only do I then have the chance to consider if they will cope, but I also have the chance to convey to them a realistic picture of what it would be like to add a degree course to their already hectic lives. As well as talking to them myself, I arrange for them to meet a second or third-year student in similar circumstances who can be brutally honest about the stresses, but equally demonstrate first-hand that the difficulties can be overcome. It is important work, but it all clocks up more hours.

The rise in the number of students from overseas has also been well documented. Admissions tutors are having to cope with a burgeoning array of qualifications that they need to be able to decode. Is a grade 4 in the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations better or worse than a grade 2? Is a School Leaving Certificate from Azerbaijan equivalent to A levels or GCSEs? (Answers: worse and GCSEs, by the way). The information is available, but it takes time to extract, making evaluation of international applicants a more prolonged process than that of home students.

Added to this, is work on the publicity materials. No longer does this mean rewriting your bit in the prospectus every year or two. Now there are individual course brochures, entry profiles for each course to be updated on the Ucas website, plus your own admissions web pages to keep up to date.

Then there are the follow-up letters to write, recruitment fairs to attend and lectures to give at schools, where you hope that you can enthuse your audience about your institution as well as your subject. Sometimes it seems, as the Red Queen observed to Alice, "it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place".

But none of the above should be construed as resentment. I find admissions a very agreeable role, despite how it has changed and continues to change given the increasing and varied pressures on universities. I enjoy chatting with applicants and am convinced that we have an excellent "product" to offer. If only there weren't the research assessment exercise and Quality Assessment Agency audit trails to contend with and, of course, those students to teach.

Chris Willmott is admissions tutor for medical biochemistry at Leicester University.

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