Universities fear Ucas plan for postgraduate applications tool

Concerns raised over potential lack of opt-out and charging regime

January 26, 2021

Ucas’ plans to create “an AI-driven, international postgraduate application system with no opt-in or out capability for universities” have sparked a row with institutions who see a threat to their autonomy and “ethical questions” on charging for applications.

The UK sector’s admissions body says that its use of MO, a “multi-language mobile app” it acquired in October 2020, is designed to “help the UK attract and support postgraduate students from around the world by creating a single, easy to use and welcoming front door to UK higher education”.

Ucas, which has previously faced criticism over its commercial expansion, has long operated domestic student applications for universities, but has traditionally had a smaller role in international student applications.

Critics fear that the latest Ucas commercial enterprise could potentially be extended to international undergraduates in future, though there is no indication that Ucas has such a plan.

Sector concerns are set out in a letter to Ucas from the UK Council for International Student Affairs, whose membership includes every UK university, and the British Universities International Liaison Association. The letter bills itself as “created in consultation with” Universities UK International.

“The current proposal includes measures which stand to diminish institutional autonomy in matters of recruitment and admissions practices…It is evident that Ucas intends to establish an AI-driven, international postgraduate application system with no opt in or out capability for universities,” says the letter, seen by Times Higher Education.

On quality, “the risk to the university sector is an increase in applications not properly aligned to our recruitment and selection criteria, resulting in delays in application processing and applications that are not eligible for an offer of admission”, it continues.

And the Ucas scheme “does not acknowledge the impact of generating increased volumes of applications from high-risk markets on university immigration compliance measures”, UKCISA and BUILA say.

On pricing, they add that Ucas has “said that you intend to charge students, or the agents making an application on their behalf, a course application fee…We are concerned with Ucas charging application fees to students to apply to university programmes which may conflict with universities’ own programme recruitment and selection priorities and raises ethical questions that include a lack of parity with domestic applicants, and the problem of double charging for application services.”

The letter asks that Ucas “should provide individual universities with the opportunity to opt out of receiving applications to study via the MO application” and that it works with universities to pilot the scheme.

At the time Ucas acquired MO, Aaron Powell, chief digital and data officer at Ucas, who will act as managing director for MO in the Ucas Group, said that the technology was a “game-changer”.

It “allows for a streamlined application process, eliminating the need to complete multiple applications across different forms, or spend hours searching for postgraduate courses information, scholarships, accommodation, and employment, in different places”, he said.

A spokeswoman said Ucas believed that MO “will enhance the UK’s competitiveness and better help UK universities attract and enrol more and more students from across the world” but that it was “important that the interaction” between MO, universities and agents “adds value and, most importantly, it works for students”.

“We are talking to the sector and universities about the services MO can offer ahead of its formal launch, and we are trialling the system with individual universities to understand what the best model is,” she said.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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