Posted tagged ‘student admissions’

A testing time for university admissions

September 21, 2015

In higher education there are few things as difficult, as potentially controversial and (as some might argue) as habitually misleading as the examinations that secure access to university courses. In the not-too-distant past many universities that considered themselves to be part of an elite conducted their own tests as a basis for admission decisions. But over time these examinations disappeared, particularly as in several countries standardised admissions procedures were developed across the whole university sector. So for example the University of Cambridge discontinued its own entrance exam in 1986.

This produced a situation in which the final school examinations, typically run by the state, determined university admissions. In the United States of America the equivalent standardised test – the SAT (originally the ‘Scholastic Aptitude Test’, now just SAT) – is run by a private non-profit organisation, but is accepted by the entire higher education system.

The advantage of a nation-wide standard test is that it provides an apparently objective and comparable basis for university admissions decisions; everyone applying has done the same test and has been graded according to the same guidelines and standards, across the whole country and in applications to all institutions.

Of course that only works if the credentials of the examination and the usefulness of the results it produces are widely accepted. A problem that has emerged in a number of countries is the suspicion that results have suffered from grade inflation – i.e. the belief that improved scores are less due to better performance and more due to a tendency to increase the average marks over time. So if results are in large numbers converging on the same high point in the scale it becomes more difficult, it is argued, for universities to determine which student applicants have demonstrated the better aptitude for their chosen course.

Now the University of Cambridge has responded to this apparent phenomenon by talking about reintroducing its entrance exam. Whether this is a good solution to the perceived problem is another matter, not least because the entrance exam is seen by many as favouring students from private schools, who will have the staff and resources to prepare applicants for this exercise.

There is a very good case for re-examining final school examinations in a number of countries, and also for looking again at how the results are used in the university sector to take admissions decisions. Where they are used to determine entry standards they should work reasonably well; where they are used to make individual selections (i.e. to select one student over another) they may often be less useful. But the answer to the problem almost certainly is not for individual universities to introduce entrance examinations.

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University marketing: a good idea?

July 2, 2013

Every year  universities spend a fair amount of money – the precise sum will vary from year to year and from institution to institution – on marketing. Mostly this money is spent on advertising designed to attract students. Over recent years, many universities have advertised on radio or television, and on billboards or bus shelters. Some campaigns have been quite spectacular. If you consider the case for marketing from the institution’s perspective, it makes a certain amount of sense: the university has facilities and staff and needs to ensure that these are utilised in the best way possible through successful student recruitment.

It is possible, one might suppose, that some of this advertising encourages students to apply to a university where previously they had not thought of entering higher education. But then again, it is also possible that the effect of such marketing is to persuade students to favour one university over another; in other words, it is not about encouraging students to develop their intellectual maturity and their opportunities in higher education, it is about persuading them to go to a particular university.

It seems to me that marketing in a university is a necessary activity, not least because the idea of higher education needs to be kept in the public consciousness, but also because universities need to survive and prosper. Whether marketing should be seen as a competitive activity designed to gain a greater share of the same market for one particular institution could perhaps be debated. This may become a yet more acute question if, as is apparently the case in the United States, public money made available to for-profit private colleges is used to advertise their services to fee-paying students. But then again, it is not easy to see how marketing could be carried out that does not promote the specific qualities of the university and, by implication, its superiority over other institutions.

Some people in the academic community have argued that the whole concept of marketing in universities is a mistake, in particular because it often focuses on the non-academic attributes of an institution. One former admissions officer of a US university has recently described the development of marketing as follows:

‘There was a subtle move to encouraging as many applications as possible since that increased the selectivity profile (and hence, prestige and position in rankings) of the institution. There was a growing emphasis on promoting your school and that came to mean not only highlighting your academic programs but the comfort and amenities of dorm rooms, exceptional food, health-club-quality gym facilities, and endless extra-curricular activities that insure that students have fun. Colleges began producing slicker and slicker “viewbooks” that were magazines with limited text but lots of expensive photos taken by professional photographers featuring happy (usually preppy white kids with an occasional person of color who otherwise looked like everyone else). The subtext was “four happy years” at our place.’

But then again, universities are not just part of a larger public sector agency. Each individual institution needs to ensure it operates in a sustainable way, and that it generates the resources it needs to maintain and grow quality programmes. Marketing is a necessary component of that. And if you do marketing, it is entirely right to do it professionally. Furthermore, nowadays it is widely accepted that the education experience extends beyond the classroom. Nostalgia for some alleged era in which pedagogy trumped all else is, like most nostalgia, not terribly useful. But having a debate on marketing may help to ensure that its use is appropriate, and ethical. Such a debate is always worth having.

Understanding student applications data

November 29, 2011

In the United Kingdom the Universities and College Admissions Service (UCAS), which handles student applications to higher education institutions, yesterday released the current applications figures for the coming academic year, and the numbers are significantly down on the comparable figures for last year. UK-wide the number is down 12.9 per cent.

On the face of it the reduction does not appear to be a result of the new fees régime in England, since the numbers are also down in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

University mission groups such as the Russell Group and Million+ have been quick to put their own interpretation on the data, but both have shown signs of nervousness about the numbers, and their statements are designed to persuade potential students to go ahead with their applications – and these can still be made in the UK until mid-January.

The truth is that we really don’t know right now what is happening. We don’t know whether the publicity around new funding and tuition fee arrangements has influenced student choice – and it is quite possible that some students are not aware that the position in Scotland is different. We don’t know for sure whether there are other demographic reasons for a decline in numbers. We don’t know what impact the recession is having, or fears about future economic developments.

What we do know, or at least imagine we know, is that we are heading into a much more uncertain era for higher education. In this setting, a greater sense of public policy stability and continuity will almost certainly be a good idea. The rather chaotic state of higher education strategy in England over the past year, if continued, could start to do serious damage.

Avoiding early specialisation at university

September 9, 2011

One of the key features of many of today’s universities is that often they admit students into a wide array of highly specialised subjects. Students are expected to leave secondary school with their career choices clearly mapped out, and this is then reflected in their higher education roadmaps. But is this a good idea?

One of the ideas mooted in the recent paperEntry to Higher Education in Ireland in the 21st Century, prepared by Professor Áine Hyland for Ireland’s National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, is that universities should consider ‘reform [of] the configuration of first year courses to eliminate denominated courses and adopt a policy of generic first year courses unless there are compelling reasons not to do so (e.g. General Arts; General Science; General Technology; General Health Sciences).’ This would overcome students’ lack of insight into specialised areas of study and allow them to make choices when they are more mature and have developed more sophisticated study skills.

Given the proliferation of university degree programmes, and the tendency to keep introducing new programmes on top of old ones, this is a proposal worthy of consideration, and not just in Ireland. It may be time to push back career decisions to a somewhat later stage, not least because at that later stage students are more capable of forming a judgement of their own, with less reliance on parents and counsellors. The idea is worthy of reflection.

University applications in the UK – what can we conclude?

January 5, 2011

Ahead of the deadline for applications for university places later this month, the UK’s higher education admissions agency, UCAS, has revealed some initial information about applications received so far. Applications to English universities are up 3.3 per cent, while those to Scottish universities are down by 15 per cent. Applications by school leavers have fallen, but those by mature students have increased.

There is also a growing gender gap, with 58 per cent of applications now coming from women.

There are clearly major changes taking place in the higher education demographics, and it will be important to consider these and to ascertain what impact they should have on policy. Maybe understandably much of the media attention will focus on the effect of rising English tuition fees, but there are many other factors as well that need to be taken into account. Questions will also need to be asked about whether the data should prompt further reforms in higher education teaching and learning methods.