A-level results day nerves are traditionally the province of the 300,000-plus students waiting to find out if they got the grades they wanted.
But it can be a nail-biting day for university chiefs, too, marking as it does the beginning of clearing - a final chance to fill places, hit recruitment targets and maximise funding. “It can be a little nerve- racking before the phones start ringing,” said Quintin McKellar, vice- chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, speaking to Times Higher Education the day after A-level results were released on 15 August. “[But] from 7.30 yesterday morning the phones did start ringing, which was very reassuring.”
Like many universities, Hertfordshire did not hit its targets last year, recruiting 730 fewer students than in 2011 - a decrease of about 12 per cent. A fall in the number of students obtaining top grades in 2012, and the introduction of higher tuition fees, meant that about 50,000 fewer students started a degree in UK institutions last autumn compared with the previous year.
“It affected us a little,” Professor McKellar explained. “Numbers were down somewhat but they appear to have bounced back this year. We don’t know yet because we’re not fully through clearing, but we’re ahead today from where we were at this time last year.”
Although he predicted a successful recruitment cycle, Professor McKellar was critical of the way in which the UK’s admissions system operates, with students applying to institutions before they know their final grades. He would prefer a system of post-qualifications applications, and was dismissive of those who argue that it would be unfeasible.
“There is an argument made that the time between the results becoming available and the start of an academic term makes it difficult to do post- qualifications applications in the UK. I don’t believe that,” he said.
“We could move the times of exam outcomes, or the time of the start of the academic term, in order to fit a system that would allow post- qualifications applications. But there has been a huge debate on that, and essentially it has been rejected as a possibility, at least in current thinking within higher education in this country.”
Restructuring the admissions process would not only make things easier, it would also be fairer for both universities and students, he added.
“If all qualifications were known, you could rank all the prospective students from numbers 1 to 40,000…and universities could accept and reject on that basis. It would be a fairer system.”
More students, more money
Student recruitment is not the only thing on the up at Hertfordshire, with tuition fees also increasing this year. When the new fees regime came into force last year, the average annual yearly charge was below £7,500. That average is now about £8,000, and there are plans to raise it still further.
“We [had] a very clear realisation after the first year that the system as it exists has not made students price-sensitive,” Professor McKellar said. “There are lots of things that make students choose which university to go to, and I think the reputation of the university clearly is more important to students - and, presumably, also their parents - than the price tag.”
So does he regret not charging higher fees to begin with? “We didn’t think we should have charged more because in the first instance we wanted to offer the best value for money,” he explained. “But it quickly became apparent that those universities charging £9,000 were still remaining attractive to students, and they weren’t having a problem filling their places.”
He added that the lower rate last year gave Hertfordshire the room to make an adjustment this year “for inflation”.
The university is well known for its business-focused approach to learning. It was named Entrepreneurial University of the Year by THE in 2010, and ensuring that students gain real-world business experience is one of Professor McKellar’s main objectives. Indeed, he intends to ensure that one day all Hertfordshire students spend some of their time on a work placement.
“As a university, we’ve been trying to think quite deeply about the attributes that we want our students to have,” he said, citing “professionalism, enterprise, entrepreneurial- ism and critical thinking” as skills that can be learned from the workplace.
“We would love this university to have a system where all students did placements of one sort or another in a mandatory fashion. We can’t get there yet - I think perhaps at some point in the future we’ll move towards that,” he said.