Break the supplier chains

Ucas is a monopoly that cares more about protecting universities than helping students, says Steve Edwards. It must be reorganised

January 26, 2012



Credit: Elly Walton


I have a problem with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. After dealing with the organisation for some time, I have come to the conclusion that it is fundamentally flawed.

Just to be clear, I am not talking about the people who work there; I have a problem with the organisation's structure.

My involvement with Ucas started through a charity I founded, the website bestCourse4me.com. We aim to help prospective students - especially those from deprived educational backgrounds - understand the reality of a university education and how the lives of graduates in different subjects, and from particular institutions, have developed in comparison with the lives of non-graduates. To do this, we have asked a number of organisations for statistics that they collect so that we can aggregate them and publish the outcomes on our website.

Except for Ucas, everyone we approached has been helpful. But despite much effort and goodwill from individuals on both sides, we have got nowhere with Ucas. As an organisation, it has been obstructive. Although it made detailed commitments in front of the universities and science minister David Willetts to release data, so far it has released precisely nothing. The reason? Its board has decided to withhold the data. In fact, in all our discussions, the constraint on what could be agreed was always what the board would allow, or to avoid the concerns of "members".

Of course, this is a problem and a frustration for my charity, but it set me thinking more broadly. Why should a body that exists to help students find the best university places not want to release information that would be beneficial to students? The answer is that it exists to serve universities. According to documents submitted to Parliament in 2009, "Ucas is owned by its institutional members, to which is it accountable, and is governed by its Board of Directors", and it is "responsive to the needs of members".

So it is the university representatives on the board of Ucas who won't release data. Now it all makes sense.

The universities are frightened. They are accustomed to a world where there is little questioning of the value of what they do. It was pretty comfortable for them to compete on vague reputation, research rankings and the price of beer - nothing too specific or potentially damaging.

A few institutions might feel that they are undervalued and that the truth about their performance would help them recruit better students and improve their reputation and funding.

However, every institution - even those elite temples of academic excellence in the Russell Group - are frightened about revealing the weaknesses they know about, and terrified that someone else will unearth shocking realities they did not know about. As in any cosy, members-only monopoly, the cold light of openness and transparency is unfamiliar, risky and to be resisted.

Let's be clear here. Ucas is a monopoly, and a supplier-owned monopoly at that. As a UK-based prospective undergraduate, you have little choice but to use Ucas for your application. In my view, Ucas suffers from the symptoms you would expect from any monopoly that exists to serve the sellers.

I'd like to see a new applications service: one that focuses on serving the interests of students rather than the interests of universities; one where administrative convenience for admissions tutors is not the highest priority; one where finding the best match for each student is the primary objective.

Out would go the system in which students must choose only two institutions long before their results are out; in would come flexibility to find a match with a more demanding institution if their results are better than they expected.

And this organisation would be keen to publish as much information as possible, releasing it to anyone who could present it attractively.

The problem with Ucas is that the wrong people own it. As long as it is owned and controlled by universities, it will always reflect their fears and aspirations. My plea is for Ucas to be reconstituted as a body that serves students as its first priority.

It would be a small, simple change, but it is one that I believe would lead to a profound improvement in the quality of student recruitment. And, more importantly, it would be a step towards genuinely fair access for able students from all backgrounds.

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