Don's Diary

August 30, 1996

Thursday. The 30th undergraduate intake of my career and I find myself singing a Rolling Stones' number - "This could be the last time". There must be a better way of admitting students. The pressures on all involved are great. But candidates, parents and schools realise that more is achieved with a kind word and a threat than a kind word alone.

This is "D Day." Candidates receive their results and we test our strategy. Monitoring committee, a deputy vice chancellor and myself, aims to fill all our places. I and my admissions colleagues advise tutors on candidates who have not precisely satisfied the terms of our offer. A case is made to the committee for acceptance. The committee used to have to be ruthless to stop departments taking too many students. But the numbers game and the consequences of missing the planned student numbers have concentrated our minds. Where we are short, we resort to clearing.

The day begins with Radio Devon. I deflect the question on A-level standards and get into less controversial waters. While at the studio I discover the BBC and the university have a lot in common. I find that I am getting more political in my comments the older I get.

Back at the university my assistant has set up the telephone answering service to protect the office but also to provide personal help and advice. I am told some callers are not pleased at having to wait until Friday for a final decision. That is balanced by the thanks we get for having real people at the end of the telephone and not a tape to deal with enquiries.

The results of monitoring are assessed. Although I have experience I have no magic wand. Tutors do not always believe me. I look at the clearing enquiries with my assistant and decide which to take further. When I get home after another 12-hour day, I am told my picture is in the evening paper . . .

Friday. The telephone queues get longer. A candidate asks why she was rejected. She is told and retorts that we have not heard the last of her - she proves this right. Many callers are still committed to other universities. The post brings the first batch of those who wish to break their commitments to us. The reasons in most cases must have been known before the results were published.

I wish students would have the courage to tell us before so that we can admit someone else. I tend, unless there is good reason, to make them jump a few hurdles so that they are sure that what they are saying has been carefully thought through. The number who claim to have sick mothers is staggering. Mothers of candidates beware.

Students begin to arrive in person. I have no problems about this. They take the risk, I see them. After seeing one who took up residence with his father I spent the whole afternoon getting more information from his school about a below-offer grade in one of his A levels. The answer is still a rejection unless the subject is re-graded. I am saved from another meeting with the boy and his father by the other half of the monitoring committee arriving.

Gemini Radio wants a live interview. The time for the telephone contact comes and goes. So I take the initiative and am told they tried and failed because our phones were continuously engaged. I have to ask Universities and Colleges Admissions Service to find a needle in the haystack for us.

Saturday-Sunday. Little relaxation. My mind is full of admissions' stresses and my golf shows it.

Monday. I pick up where Friday finished. I contact schools and colleges and also candidates to try and locate missing results where they are not complete or where they are not sent to us automatically.

UCAS gets back to me - the needle has been found. I promise a reward when I am next in Cheltenham, if there is a next time. The Rolling Stones' song comes back to me. An imaginary Sherlock Holmes medal may have to suffice. Then UCAS helps unravel a problem over a candidate who has allegedly been misinformed by a tutor.

Tuesday. More of the same while Clearing picks up. The old University Central Council on Admissions system gave us control over candidates, being able to judge whether a particular referral would be made. The UCAS system leaves us in the dark not knowing which clearing entry forms will be sent by candidates to us. When we need an element of certainty it is not there. Many requests for UCAS application forms in anticipation that the entry form will be sent are wasted. It adds unnecessarily to the pressure.

Wednesday. I try to reach Tony Higgins at UCAS to say some nice things about his staff and the admissions operation. What is pleasing is that after all the hassle our numbers seem right except for engineering and the physical sciences. Perhaps I do have a magic wand and have not realised. I stop to reflect on 30 intakes. No longer will the lack of planning on others' parts lead to an emergency on mine. No longer will I be the target of the critics who have never tried the job I have done. Professional pride has helped me survive. I hope that my staff who have worked all hours will get the credit they deserve. At least my golf will improve. I have been advised to go away on holiday - next August. The song comes back - " This is the last time . . . " Peter A. Lee Admissions officer at Exeter University.

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