UK universities are currently making preparations for the arrival of the latest batch of students. But in the case of postgraduates, this is a particularly tricky business because most universities can only “guesstimate” who will turn up. This further complicates the already difficult challenges of timetabling, resourcing adequate support and budget planning.
In my 26-year career in higher education, I have been responsible for different elements of the admissions and entry process as a faculty administrative manager, academic, researcher into the student experience and, latterly, faculty academic manager. It has always perplexed and dismayed me that university leaders do not see the benefits that a national postgraduate admissions service could provide.
Such a scheme has existed since 2007, when Ucas, the undergraduate admissions service, launched the UK Postgraduate Application and Statistical Service. But while every UK university uses Ucas, only 11 currently use UKPASS.
Through the research of the Postgraduate Experience Project, which I created and led in 2014/15, I came to the conclusion that participation in a national postgraduate admissions system should be compulsory.
Vice-chancellors’ unwillingness to act is symptomatic of the fact that the sector has tended to treat postgraduate study as a bolt-on to the core business of educating undergraduates. But such a system would benefit individuals, institutions and the sector more broadly.
First, it would help institutions get a better idea of who is likely to walk through the door in September. As it stands, postgraduates can apply to as many universities and for as many different courses as they like. Each institution has to process a candidate’s application not knowing if they have applied to other institutions or for other courses.
Applicants using UKPASS can apply for up to 10 courses at any participating institution. But with so few institutions taking part, the potential benefits of the system, such as the ability to predict enrolments based on a range of characteristics provided in the application, are not fully realised.
Second, a structured admission process with a reasonable application fee would focus the attention of applicants on what they want to study and why. It would reduce applications from those not genuinely interested in postgraduate study. The Postgraduate Experience Project found that some international applicants never intend to study in the UK; they merely want to put the UK offer on their CVs to help them obtain a university place in their own countries. For just one faculty of my university at the time, I calculated that the cost of processing fruitless applications was almost £60,000 once administrative and academic time was factored in. Multiply this up to national level, and the cost of this wasted effort is astounding.
Third, collecting statistics on applicants in a consistent way would enable the sector to better understand participation behaviour and barriers. A national admissions system would allow us, for instance, to identify whether socially disadvantaged students are progressing to postgraduate level, as well as how they fare after arriving. Since 2011, the decline in postgraduate study has been generally continuous, but if the sector had better access to patterns of enrolment, it could be more creative in responding to the problem, perhaps by offering short courses or blending part-time face-to-face learning with online.
Students and staff are rightly frustrated when they do not have a functional timetable three weeks into the start of term. It sets a very bad tone and belies the promise of the high-quality experience made by the university’s marketing department in its admissions literature. If, as has been suggested, the teaching excellence framework (which draws on the National Student Survey) is extended to postgraduate study, such failures could come to haunt universities.
For the UK to sustain its position as a world-leading provider of postgraduate education, more creativity and innovation is needed. But this requires accurate, national data as well as collaboration between universities. A compulsory UK-wide postgraduate admissions scheme would provide this, and its benefits would far outweigh the costs.
Michelle Morgan is associate dean for student experience at Bournemouth University’s Faculty of Media and Communication.