Computers may overlook 'contextual information'

Institutions are turning to admissions software as demand for places rises. Melanie Newman reports

April 22, 2010

At a time of rising applications and political pressure to widen access to higher education, student leaders have called into question the widespread use of automated admissions procedures.

Universities are increasingly being asked to take into account the "contextual information" on applicants' individual circumstances when they make offers.

A policy of offering places to applicants with "potential" has been recommended by the National Council for Educational Excellence, and this approach is supported by the Labour Party in its election manifesto.

However, at the same time universities are turning to computer software to cope with the volume of applications.

The popularity of the software has raised questions over whether applications - which contain detailed personal statements - are being properly considered.

Times Higher Education understands that up to 70 per cent of UK universities are now using one program, SITS:Vision, to help streamline admissions procedures.

A spokeswoman for Tribal Group, which produces the software, said it "enables institutions to make conditional offers to applicants who meet specific requirements in a consistent way".

Where the terms of the offer are met, the software recommends converting the conditional offer into an offer of a place, she explained.

"Where terms are not met, the software will 'rank' the applicants so that admission staff can see who is 'borderline'," she added.

However, she acknowledged that it could not "replace the need to make decisions where there are more complex requirements involving other selection criteria.

"The software doesn't make a decision; it's always a human."

Despite this reassurance, the National Union of Students said candidates would be concerned to learn that their applications were not being fully considered.

Wes Streeting, the outgoing NUS president, said the use of software "would appear to contradict the move towards the use of contextual data in admissions, something that we strongly support to ensure a level playing field.

"If an institution takes so little care in reading someone's application, it doesn't bode well for the kind of experience that students paying higher fees have come to expect," he added.

Universities that use automated admissions software appear to be aware of the potential for disquiet.

The University of Hertfordshire has been using another program, Genesis, to process admissions since last year. Minutes of a meeting of its recruitment and admissions policy committee record "concerns regarding the potential reputational risk" attached.

A university spokesman said the software screened out applicants who were not studying the A levels required for a particular course.

"The automated process comes up with a list of people who meet the course requirements and on that basis a standard offer is made," he said. "There is scope for manual intervention at the offer stage."

Meanwhile, the University of Leeds is using software to automatically flag up certain candidates based on their postcode and secondary school performance.

Admissions tutors then consider whether to make those candidates a lower offer than would be made to a standard candidate.

Matthew Andrews, registrar at Oxford Brookes University and chair of the admissions group of the Academic Registrars Council, said that he was satisfied that computer programs could play a role in admissions procedures provided that they were used "appropriately".

"The most important thing is that decisions are taken in line with an institution's published statements on admissions," he said.

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