From student selection to student recruitment: the question of numbers
In 1991 I moved from my post as Lecturer in Industrial Relations in Trinity College Dublin to that of Professor of Law in the University of Hull. Although Hull was (and is) a medium size regional university, it had (and has) a vibrant Law School that was punching significantly above the university’s weight in all matters except research (something we corrected very quickly in the early 1990s). It was a popular destination for law students, and in those early years the task of the student admissions officer was to make a selection of the best applicants.
However, as the 1990s progressed the student admissions scene in England changed. For demographic and other reasons, the older (i.e. pre-1992) universities found themselves having to compete in the UK system known as ‘clearing‘ for students who had typically failed to get their first choices and who were looking for something acceptable as a replacement. And all of a sudden the task of the admissions officer changed from selection to active recruitment. It now became a matter of fine-tuning promotional literature and taking care to have it distributed widely, of school visits and of similar actions; and students were no longer always competing for places, often we were competing for the students.
The change that occurred in England in the 1990s, and which arrived in Ireland some time around 2004, is a significant one. Formerly student selection was an expression of the elite nature of university education, and was connected with the fact that there were only enough places for a minority of those intellectually qualified to be students. With higher education expansion it was always inevitable that, at least during some years, universities would be chasing students rather than the other way round. This puts student applicants more in the driving seat, but it also creates problems. Universities end up adjusting the currency of the transaction – in Ireland the CAO points – in order to secure the necessary numbers, only to find in some instances that the students are unable to cope when admitted.
There is, it seems to me, a need to look closely at the number and qualifications of applicants to see what the most appropriate number of student places might be. Wherever places cannot be filled without what I might describe as excessive marketing, it may be that the student numbers being pursued are too high. I am a strong believer in making higher education available to people from all backgrounds, and our access programmes in particular suggest that there are more disadvantaged people out there who should be supported in seeking a university place. It must also be borne in mind that the CAO points system seriously distorts preferences for particular programmes. But in the end we should be alert to the fact that excessive recruitment is a sign of saturation.
I suspect that the Irish university system now has undergraduate numbers that are as high as they should be, and possibly even slightly higher than is ideal (leaving out the resourcing issues completely). We should, I believe, make still more efforts to recruit from disadvantaged areas, and our access programmes should be supported for further growth. But these students should probably not increase overall numbers, but rather balance the socio-economic distribution. It is time to be smarter about policies for higher education participation.Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.