Don's Diary

September 4, 1998

As chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the end of August was one of the busiest times of the year for Tony Higgins. A-level results were published and school leavers scrambled for university places.


Over the weekend we receive A-level results from the examination boards and provide each university with the results of applicants who are holding conditional offers. This enables universities to make decisions about who to accept before the youngsters receive their results on Thursday and start ringing up to check if they have a place. All goes well. Predictions of a computing disaster with one of the boards are not realised. A major failure on the part of one of the bigger boards would paralyse the whole system.


The phones start ringing early asking for comments and interviews on figures published today that suggest huge numbers of students are dropping out from degree and diploma courses before finishing them. The figures suggest that those students who enter university through the clearing system are more likely not to complete their courses than those who enter university through the more orthodox route. I vigorously defend universities because the statistics are extremely simplistic. All previous research shows that those who are admitted via clearing are no more likely to drop out than others. It may be in one sense that these are the lucky ones: they have chosen to go to university or college after they have their qualifications for entry when they know more of what they want to study and what their qualifications are. We are all looking for a system of applying post-qualification and the clearing students have found it.


More interviews, this time to counter allegations in the press that higher education is "dumbing down" degrees by spawning all kinds of mysterious degrees with sexy titles, such as herbal medicine or business studies with gambling. The encouraging part of the day is a presentation by a UCAS working party of the way in which we can develop our computer systems to provide all manner of linked application and information systems whether full-time, part-time, different subject areas, different regions.

This fits in with ideas we are developing with commercial partners to provide a comprehensive information and progression service for all manner of learning for higher education, further education, the University for Industry, private providers and employers. We are hoping that we can get through this week intact but, at the same time, are planning for the next century.


We have a very exciting meeting in which colleagues present proposals for a sophisticated computerised guidance system to help people choose suitable degree courses. It can clearly be extended to provide a guidance system for Lifelong Learning and it can surely be integrated with the electronic developments we were discussing yesterday. It is the day before A-level results and calls to our enquiries number are mounting. By mid-morning the display in our enquiries office shows that we have dealt with 2,500 calls. The first television crews come in to do interviews. Some people criticise UCAS for being too visible and audible at this time but we think there are important messages to put across.


A-level day. I get up at 5.15am to prepare for the first live TV interview. I do 16 interviews and an hour-long radio programme. We deal with 7,000 telephone callers. There are 35,000 course searches made on our website. Predictably business studies, medicine, law, computer science, psychology and English are the most popular subjects. A worry is that the ECCTIS database, which is supplying the Department for Education and Employment/BBC official helpline, at least in its hard copy form in The Times, appears to be carrying only 60 per cent of the vacancies notified to UCAS.


We publish the first numbers of students accepted to university - at 222,600 we are 5.2 per cent up on this time last year. Commentators ask if this suggests that the introduction of tuition fees is having no impact but you cannot interpret trends from one day's figures. We cope with a few hundred faulty A-level results in languages where the results of oral exams have not been added to the overall marks, leaving candidates with lower grades than they actually achieved. Some students have consequently been rejected. It is all unravelled but not before great heartache for the students.


The phones and website are still blasting away. Acceptances are still up on last year's, including those in clearing, and withdrawals are down. We have to conclude that fees are having little effect on demand.

Tony Higgins

Chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

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