Ucas withholds application data for 2013-14 over legal fears, to NUS’ chagrin. John Morgan reports
The decision to keep universities’ application figures secret because of concerns about competition law shows that student interests are being “overridden by market imperatives”, according to the National Union of Students.
This year and for the first time, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service has decided to withhold figures on applicant numbers by institution, which had been scheduled for publication last month after the applications deadline on 15 January.
That month, Ucas unveiled the 2012-13 figures on student acceptances, which revealed that numbers at some institutions had fallen by up to 43 per cent.
In concert with those figures, the 2013-14 applications data would have shown which universities are most threatened by the new fees and funding system. Successive years of reduced student demand could land institutions with financial losses running to tens of millions of pounds.
A Ucas spokesman said in a statement: “The decision to change the publication schedule of [the] Ucas January applications digest was taken based on competition law considerations.”
The organisation “considered that publishing the applications digest within a cycle could potentially change institutional or applicant behaviour in a way that is not helpful in a fair and competitive application process”, he said.
Times Higher Education asked Ucas if the decision was taken in response to contact from the Office of Fair Trading or from individual universities worried about their figures.
However, the spokesman said that the decision was taken by the Ucas board.
Liam Burns, the NUS president, said: “The government argued its funding changes would put more information at students’ disposal, rather than less.
“It appears, however, that it is competition rather than the student interest which has been put at the heart of the system.”
Mr Burns added: “That prospective applicants are now not allowed to know how the universities they are considering are faring on applications flies in the face of assurances that student interests would not be overridden by market imperatives.”
Ucas will not publish the 2013-14 applications data until the end of the current cycle in the autumn.
Mr Burns said it was “all the more galling that the effect of withholding this information from public scrutiny is to impede assessments of the full impact of government policy on application behaviour across application cycles”.
Mary Curnock Cook, Ucas’ chief executive, said that the move “reflects our concerns that such information could be overinterpreted by both institutions and applicants, and give rise to unintended market effects”.
She added: “The January deadline data don’t take account of institutions which may typically recruit a greater proportion of applicants later in the cycle - for example, from mature and international markets. We are also concerned that applicants who are taking decisions at the course level could put too much weight on institution-level data.”
If competition law does apply to Ucas, then it could find itself with other problems.
One academic expert in the field suggested that Ucas rules limiting applicants to five course choices and forbidding most people from applying both to the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge might be subject to challenge as restrictive practices.