UCAS recognises it will have to adapt if the delivery of higher education is to be more varied. Alison Goddard reports.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is planning to expand its empire.
As the government increases the number of higher education places in further education colleges, UCAS is looking to capture the market of applicants for these new places. It wants to build a national database of all courses, including part-time and further education courses with the University for Industry. It is keeping an eye on students doing access courses and part-time study. And, if it succeeds in this diversification, UCAS is wondering whether to offer different services to different types of institution.
"If the delivery of higher education is going to be varied, UCAS must adapt to all circumstances," said Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS.
UCAS has a history of burgeoning growth: it was established in 1993 from the merger of the former Universities Central Council on Admissions, the Polytechnics' Central Admissions System, and the Standing Conference on University Entrance. The year before it took over running the social work admissions system on behalf of the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work.
Since then, UCAS has effectively absorbed three further agencies. It took over the Art and Design Admissions Registry in 1996. It operates the nursing and midwifery admissions system on behalf of the National Health Service. It also runs the graduate teacher training agency with the Teacher Training Agency and the Department for Education and Employment.
UCAS is a company limited by guarantee and a charity. Institutions pay UCAS more than Pounds 6 million a year to run the admission process, representing more than 40 per cent of its total income of Pounds 15 million. Applicants contribute a further Pounds 4.5 million.
Now UCAS is in talks with the Association of Colleges to identify whether the 215 colleges that offer higher education courses but are not members want to join.
At the moment, colleges have to offer at least one degree programme to qualify for UCAS membership. However, responsibility for funding their higher education courses recently switched from the Further Education Funding Council to the Higher Education Funding Councils.
According to Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality at the AoC, this leaves colleges that offer sub-degree higher education in a no-man's-land. "At present these colleges can't be members of UCAS, and it is difficult for students to find out about them. If they were included in UCAS, it would have positive implications for students because further education colleges offer higher education opportunities to those who need to learn near their home," she said.
UCAS appears to be eyeing the opportunity with enthusiasm. Michael Goldstein, vice-chancellor of Coventry University and chairman of UCAS, said: "The current situation, in which anyone taking a higher national diploma course can either apply through UCAS or by individual applications made separately to the institution, is unsatisfactory. If UCAS admitted these further education colleges as members, it would be quite an important recognition of the growing role of further education colleges in delivering higher education. UCAS is moving with the times."
A proposal to admit further education colleges offering sub-degree provision is likely to be presented at the next UCAS board meeting in September.
The main practical problem would be a big increase in the size of the UCAS handbook, which currently runs to more than 1,000 pages. However, UCAS and the colleges are exploring electronic alternatives.
Getting more further education colleges on board would also help with another of Mr Higgins's expansion plans: building a national database of every accredited course in higher and further education, full-time and part-time. This may have implications for the UfI by providing reliable course signposting for learners.
"Whatever the UfI turns out to be, it has to have good, reliable data and UCAS could have an important role in that," said Dr Goldstein.
However such a database already exists. Until late last year, UCAS owned a 30 per cent share in the ECCTIS 2000 database run on behalf of the Department for Education and Employment. But the ECCTIS board decided that there was a conflict of interest between UCAS's activities and its membership of ECCTIS, and Mr Higgins was invited to consider leaving the board, which he did.
Moreover ECCTIS already has a contract with Sheffield City Council, where UfIis based, and the DFEE to supply Learning Direct, effectively the UfI telephone helpline, with information on all 10,000 further and higher education courses.
"We are the Crown-owned national database of further and higher education courses. There doesn't appear to be any point in recreating this service. We have a contract with UfI which we understand we are fulfilling satisfactorily,"said Chris West, chief executive of ECCTIS 2000.
"UCASand ECCTIS have agreed to compete with each other. We are experiencing attempts by UCASto put out messages about our service which are unqualified. This is a matter of ongoing concern," he added.
At present, UCAS only handles applications for full-time courses. However, it is keeping an eye on part-time students. "Full-time students also work and an increasing number are structuring their study patterns around a job. The distinction between full-time and part-time study is becoming blurred," said Dr Goldstein.
UCAS is also looking at the potential market in handling applications from students taking access courses.
Expanding the UCAS membership and role would have knock-on effects on universities. UCAS's membership would grow to about 350 institutions ranging from large research-led traditional universities to small further education colleges specialising in local access. Running an identical applications cycle for diverse institutions may be a problem.
Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute, which takes a high proportion of local students, said: "There are long-term strategic implications for UCAS in having a diverse higher education sector, particularly if we go down the United States route of creating national institutions and local colleges. A national admissions system for national institutions is sensible, but if you are a student looking to study locally, what is the point of going through all the rigmarole?" UCAS is looking at whether it can customise its services. "If different institutions want different kinds of service, we must be able to provide it," said Mr Higgins.
For example, applications for places at the universities of Oxford or Cambridge must arrive at UCAS two months earlier than the deadline for applications to all other institutions. Meanwhile, applications from mature students, who are more likely to study locally, tend to arrive later in the applications cycle. "We could look at operating different application cycles for different groups of institutions, for example, the Russell group," said Mr Higgins.
"UCAS is changing," added Dr Goldstein.
THE APPLICATION PROCESS
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is planning to revamp the applications procedure after rejecting - yet again - proposals for a post-qualification admissions system.
The possibility of students applying for university only after receiving their A-level results has been discussed for many years. It was one of the recommendations made by Lord Dearing in his 1997 review of higher education.
However UCAS's regional groups, which include representatives from schools, colleges and universities, were strongly against the idea. A report of their findings will soon be sent to Brian Smith of Cardiff University, who chairs the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' working group on admissions. The CVCP was charged with developing such a system in collaboration with UCAS.
It is still unclear whether the CVCP will be asked to look again at the issue, which would probably involve changes to the academic year for either schools or universities. Still, the idea of a post-qualification admissions system refuses to die, despite rejection by previous panels. Developments in compiling electronic data have also made a post-qualification admissions system more achievable.
In the meantime, UCAS is planning to improve the current system to address the concerns that would have been dealt with by a post-qualification admissions system.
"If a post-qualification admissions system is not on as proposed, then we need to examine other issues such as electronic applications," said Dr Goldstein, vice-chancellor of Coventry University and chairman of UCAS.
Other options include a later start to the applications process, so that students have more time to research their options and teachers have more time to assess their students.
But this option would reduce the amount of time universities have to select applicants and the number of institutions to which students can apply would have to be cut further. A decade ago, students could apply to 12 different institutions; today the figure is six.