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.

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6 Comments on “From student selection to student recruitment: the question of numbers”

  1. Vincent Says:

    ‘balance the socio-economic distribution’. That isn’t going to happen, at least not while you have little or no control over the intake. And quite honestly, while the VHI and the others exist. Which differentiates 50% of the Pop where life&health is concerned, there is not a chance of balance in the socio-economic distribution in education.

  2. sally Says:

    It would be nice if people had equal opportunities from birth (and even before it); that way we’d really get the students with the most potential in their chosen field – a unification of egalitarianism and elitism. Let’s call it socialism. I hope that will come one day but it’s beyond our powers as mere lecturers/researchers/administrators to achieve it. All we can do is give support and promote moves in that direction. And we should.

    In the meantime, it’s possible to view – and I do – the current massification of HE as an attempt at a belated rounding-up of student potential – to ‘add value’ – to put it in the language of the market.

    In that regard, I suspect the IT’s do rather well.

  3. john Says:

    Sally, it’s also possible to view “the current massification of HE” as an attempt by politicians at producing a short term negative blip in the unemployment figures. Unfortunately, it was only a one-off blip – that lasted three to four years – the average course length of the first intake. We are now stuck with the results.

  4. sally Says:

    Such a cynic!

  5. Mark Dowling Says:

    I think the problem with points is at the top end. If a maximum point score of 550 was enforced for ALL courses, with random selection or further assessment above that score, grind schools and other exam farms would find life very difficult.

    The problem at the bottom end is not points but minimum requirements. I’m looking at the admissions page for an chemical/biochemical engineering course at an Irish university – requirements are Higher Maths @ C3, one other higher C3 and 4 x Ordinary D3. One of the non-Maths five must be Irish, and only one of the non-Maths five must be a science subject – which can include technical drawing, technology or applied maths. This is not to single out a university of which I am an alumnus, just the first that came to mind.

    How do you not have to have a Higher C3 in *Chemistry* to get into Chemical Engineering? How do you not have to have studied chemistry, biology or physics, but must have studied Irish???

  6. JPM Says:

    I tend to agree with Mark in his assessment that the problem is not the points but the minimum requirements. This is something that the universities have control over but don’t appear have any desire to address. The problem manifests across the the entire spectrum of degree programmes with students entering programmes without the rudimentary skills to tackle the course material.

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