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November 7, 2011
 

University admissions process is failing some students

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Written by: Kyle Raffo
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“If a competition had a closing date of 15 January, you wouldn’t expect any of the winners to be picked beforehand. But that’s exactly what happens with university applications,” says Stuart Lesser, 18, a first-year zoology student at Liverpool John Moores University.

According to Ucas, every student who applies by 15 January (except for medicine, dentistry and Oxbridge courses) has an equal chance of winning a place. But a row has erupted among students and teachers who fear that is not the case – and say conflicting advice is penalising students from a non-traditional background.

Universities disagree. When Education Guardian contacted them, admissions tutors up and down the country said they offer places when applications are received. As a Wolverhampton University spokesman elaborated: “We work through applications as received … we have to even out the workload, as we would not be able to deal with the volume all at once after the January deadline.”

The universities claim that this process has no impact on whether early-applicant students get in. They say the reason they offer places on receipt of applications is purely practical: spreading out academics’ workload and organising interviews.

As Rob Evans, head of admissions at the University of Sussex, explains: “In general, applications are considered as they arrive, and we make offers or turn applicants down as soon as we start processing applications in October … There is certainly no added advantage to applying early, in terms of whether you receive an offer or not.” He believes the option of operating a “gathered field” – considering all applications in one batch – in January is “impossible”.

So why do admissions tutors advise students to apply as early as October?

The situation, says Lesser, who sent off his Ucas form in November last year, “makes no sense. Universities have to be honest about this. They may want all the applications in early to make their lives easier. If so, then why not set a deadline before January?”

Teachers agree. “Student applicants are left feeling utterly confused,” says Diane Henderson, director of post-16 studies at Marine Academy, Plymouth. “Historically, the October half-term used to be the time when they researched courses, but now that whole process has been truncated due to the pressure of early applications. Those who apply earlier absolutely have a better chance of getting in. Since they accept candidates as soon as they start applying, logically, by 15 January many will have no places available. Even students applying in mid- to late December are penalising themselves, because universities may already be full.”

Henderson believes universities’ mixed messages about application timing hinders sixth-formers from non-traditional backgrounds. “If your parents are graduates and you’ve been preparing for university all your life, by year 13 you have a good idea of what you want to apply for. If you’ve come to the idea later on, the university application process needs more thought and guidance. The pressure for an early application is very unhelpful.”

Universities claim that not providing speedy offers means they could lose out on securing the best candidates. “If we wait until January, many students may have made alternative choices,” says Nicola Rees, law lecturer and admissions tutor at Kingston University. But many institutions offer conflicting advice, telling students to apply as early as possible, while claiming that doing so doesn’t affect their chances. Plymouth University’s spokesman, for example, said tutors “respect the 15 January deadline for equal consideration of applicants”, then added: “Early application is an indicator of an individual’s strength of interest, but has no bearing on a candidate’s likelihood of being made an offer.”

This debate is long-running. Back in May, it erupted on the Guardian’s website when an article about university applications included advice from Philip Davies, head of admissions at Bournemouth & Poole College. “Don’t leave your application until the new year,” he said. “The best places fill up quickly – make sure you are in the first tranche.” That triggered rapid outrage. “As part of a university’s contract with Ucas, it has to agree to give equal consideration to all applications received by the official closing date,” wrote andyjack in the comments section. “If [admissions tutors] do not know this, then they should not be working in admissions, and Ucas should be policing this with greater vigour.”

RatFinkaBooBoo, who said he worked as a university admissions tutor, disputed that. “I processed over 1,000 applications for my 65 places this year. It quite simply isn’t possible to process them all together… This is an unavoidable fact of life in the contemporary climate.”

It is possible for some, though. At University College Falmouth, for example, spokesman Chris Harrison says although tutors begin to process applications when they come in, final decisions are not made until after interviews, weeks after the 15 January deadline. Similarly, Anglia Ruskin and the University of Exeter also fill places for competitive courses via a gathered-field strategy.

Ian Blenkharn, Exeter’s head of admissions, says it only releases offers after 15 January “to ensure we can be fair and equitable to all applicants”. He adds: “We take our responsibility in this area very seriously and manage our processes carefully. If a student applies later in the cycle, they can be reassured that they will be assessed in exactly the same way.” At Sheffield Hallam, academics assess applications on receipt, with those who don’t meet the entry criteria immediately rejected, and those who exceed them by a previously agreed margin being made an offer, and those who fall in between being stored, then ranked all together after 15 January.

For current year 13s, these divergent processes are causing concern. Some are particularly worried about missing out to Oxbridge candidates, who submit applications much earlier. “My college encourages us to submit Ucas forms by the end of November, and I’ve just sent mine off,” says Heather Gilchrist, 17, who is studying for A-levels in politics, history and law at Cardinal Newman College in Preston and applying to read politics at university. “But since Oxford and Cambridge applicants get their Ucas forms off early [the deadline was 15 October], I know people who have already secured interviews.

“It would be fairer if universities waited until all the forms had been received, after the deadline.”

Henderson agrees. “So many parts of the process are already much more difficult for first-generation applicants,” she says. “The confusion and pressure over early applications is just another exacerbating factor.”

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