I don't care who you are - just don't bring Mum

September 7, 2007

The 'process' for granting university places is an out-and-out fraud. An admissions tutor 'fesses up

As yet another admissions cycle draws to a close, I've realised, after many long years of being an undergraduate admissions tutor, that there is one foolproof way to distinguish between potential candidates. Forget tests or interviews, do away with A levels. Let's just replace the entire Universities and Colleges Admissions Service process with this simple test: any candidate who gets mum or dad to phone the university about an application should be rejected. Anyone grown up enough to make a phone call themselves gets a place. The same goes for campus visits, open days and interviews. Turn up with your parents - especially gobby ones who monopolise the day - and you're out. Manage to board a train without having your hand held, and we'll take you.

This one reform would trim the current 400,000 applicants down to a much more manageable figure. The only concern is that the infantilisation of the admissions process has now become so severe that we could be left with no candidates at all, except for much-valued mature students and a handful of latter-day Orphan Annies.

While we are doing that, how about being honest about how the admissions process works? I cannot think of any other part of higher education - except perhaps for the role of external examiners - that is more of an out-and-out fraud. Many academics, along with most parents and most teachers, don't have a clue how admissions really works. And those academics who do understand keep shtoom, for fear that they will reveal just how desperate the whole process is.

To those outside academe, the admissions tutor is an all-powerful entity. He or she decides whether the applicant has a glorious academic future or whether misery awaits.

We deliberate, cogitate and digest at great length over each candidate - with particular weight given to the Ucas reference and the personal statement.

Well, no doubt it's like that in some places and for some courses. But the truth is it ain't like that in most places or for most courses. In many cases, it's not the university that selects the students, it's the students who select the university. The role of the admissions don (as so many newspapers still insist on calling us) is largely confined to flogging the place to would-be applicants in a desperate bid to bridge the stubbornly large gap between the number of applicants required and those achieved. Popular myth may portray us as a cross between King Solomon and Darth Vader - the reality is often more Arthur Daley or Del Boy.

It gets worse during clearing, when many admissions tutors are reduced to merely checking for a pulse before admitting academically incompetent candidates.

Even where demand is greater and some form of selection is required, it is often done on a far more procedural and bureaucratic basis than the conventional wisdom assumes. The majority of students these days are made offers based entirely on their A-level grades. That - and that alone - is the nature of most selection. Everything else is irrelevant detail.

We might glance at their reference, but mainly to check what grades are being predicted. The personal statement - over which students get so very worked up - counts for almost nothing.

We really don't care how much badminton they play, or how often they go to the cinema or theatre, or which books they've read recently. Or if they've been head boy, deputy head girl, football captain or chess champion of Sussex.

But to admit this is to confess two shameful things.

First, that we are not one of the handful of places so popular that we cannot rely on A levels alone.

Hence, the ludicrous way most departments talk about the ratio of applicants to places. It sounds very impressive to have, say, six applicants for every place - it makes you sound as if you are beating applicants back with sticks, until you realise that every applicant could (until this year) make six applications.

Any department with a ratio of under 6:1 is therefore going to struggle to fill its places, given that not every candidate will get his or her grades.

Admissions tutors know this. But we never tell the applicants or their parents. We like them to think Little Johnny's getting into somewhere really exclusive.

It is also to admit, second, the anonymous, bureaucratic nature of the application process, and that we don't spend hours reading over each application form.

No university will recruit well if they 'fess up that "with us, you're just a number, not an individual".

The author is an admissions tutor at an English university.

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