Posted tagged ‘UCAS’

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.

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.

Chasing university places

August 24, 2010

As I have argued before, it now looks increasingly inevitable that the trend of recent years of a annual increases in the number of university places will come to an end. As public funding is cut, and crucially, as more and more teaching posts are taken out of the system, it is becoming impossible for universities to contemplate further increases in the student intake. This development, however, is coinciding with a significant increase in student demand, so that the impact may turn out to be a major increase in points and in the number of applicants who cannot find a place.

This development is not unique to Ireland. In England the head of UCAS (the British equivalent of the CAO) has warned that upwards of 150,000 school leavers will fail to get a university place this year. Meanwhile in Ireland he CAO’s website crashed yesterday, having fallen victim to a malicious cyber-attack early in the day, while it became clear that points for a variety of course were rising. All of these things help to pile on the pressure.

Our key concern must now be that the growing mismatch of supply and demand does not produce socially undesirable results. We need to ensure that access programmes are reinvigorated, and that university places do not disproportionately go to the children of wealthy families. We also need to ensure that young people are offered viable and attractive substitutes for higher education programmes. We should also look again at what level of participation in higher education is most suitable for this country in our current circumstances.There are many challenges ahead, but also many opportunities.

Are we seeing the end of higher education expansion?

August 12, 2010

One of the constant themes of higher education in most countries over recent decades has been its continuing expansion. After World War 2 a degree was still the expectation or aspiration of only a very small proportion of the population in western societies, usually those coming from a privileged background. Then, as one of the later consequences of the welfare state, came the so-called ‘massification’ of the sector, with higher education opening up to people and groups who had previously largely been excluded. Over recent years many governments have suggested further targets for expansion – in Ireland it became government policy to target a participation rate of 72 per cent of any given age cohort.

But this expected further expansion is not now happening in some countries, on the face of it largely for funding reasons: governments simply cannot afford to pay for it. Ironically right now it would, if the money were there, be relatively easy to let the system expand, as an increasing number of young people, unsure about their career prospects in the aftermath of the recession, are anxious to go to university. So governments face the dilemma of either pushing ahead with a further upskilling of the labour force, or facing the funding reality and cutting back. Only few will attempt the feat the Irish government has in mind, of increasing participation aggressively while paying less to the universities for providing the education.

The issue has just been highlighted in Britain, with both Universities UK and individual institutions indicating that this year they will not be offering the same number of places through ‘clearing‘ (the system used to match vacancies with aspiring students after universities have allocated places to the initial successful applicants), or even any places at all.

In Ireland the universities are having to examine very carefully whether they really can increase their intake any further in the light of continuing funding (and staffing) reductions, and with the real fear that these reductions are already seriously compromising quality.

Outside of the specific funding considerations, it should be noted that we have not really addressed in any coherent way what level of participation in higher education is workable or desirable. It is clear beyond doubt that there is further scope for increasing substantially the intake from disadvantaged groups in society, but whether an overall increase is desirable or sustainable, and what impact this would have on the overall mix of qualifications and career patterns, has not really been properly discussed, and it needs to be. Right now, it seems to me to be highly unlikely that the expansion of higher education will, or can, continue.