Hotlines, Help signs and hello minister A-level results day at UCAS

Standing in front of a bustling Universities and Colleges Admissions Service call centre in Cheltenham, David Willetts is being quizzed by Channel 4 News presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy via a live link to a London studio.

August 26, 2010

"There will be people disappointed, but I do say to them there are a range of other opportunities," the universities and science minister says, going on to suggest further education, apprenticeships and part-time study. Alternatively, he says prospective students could undertake work experience to strengthen their CVs before reapplying next year.

For the past few years, it has been traditional for the higher education minister of the day to pay a visit to Ucas on A-level results day. Normally the minister will make only a brief stop, but this year Mr Willetts has on-site media interviews booked for the entire morning.

With a mobile phone in each hand, Darren Barker, Ucas press officer, looks on. He is helping to handle the 62 media interviews that will be held with Ucas staff during the course of the day.

"The whole higher education scene has been in the general press a lot more this year," says Andrea Robertson, director of customer and application services at Ucas. "It has a higher profile in people's consciousness."

It is all hands on deck, with staff from across the organisation manning phone lines from 7am to 7pm. Fuelled by regular visits from a buffet trolley, and with red laminated "HELP" cards to attract the attention of a supervisor, a team of 120 handle more than 15,000 phone calls during the day.

There is the young man who has entered the clearing process but admits to being "not exactly sure how it works", the mum ringing on behalf of her son who is worried that his chosen university has not received his exam results, and the student who has achieved grades that most would be proud of but who has just missed out on her place.

"Don't panic and think you have to do everything today. You've got some good grades - it is just the competition this year," she is advised.

Emotions can run high, but advisers are trained to handle every eventuality.

"You do have to be very sensitive to the emotions of the person on the other end of the phone, be it the applicant or the parent," Ms Robertson says.

Despite the hectic schedule, she says she has "always loved" results day. "A huge percentage of people who want to go to university already know they are going, so there is a great buzz. It never fails to be a good day as far as I'm concerned."

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