There’s a map which the University’s planning team sent me a few months ago. It’s a map of the UK, with the home address of every single one of the University’s undergraduate students represented by a single dot. As you’d expect – it would be true of almost every university in the country that recruitment has a regional element, so there is a concentration of dots in South Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. But there are dots all over the country: from Penzance to Perth, from Folkestone to Fort William. And behind every one of those dots, of course, there is a story about university choices, about preparing to join us for the first time or planning to return to us this autumn.
We are drawing this year’s undergraduate admissions round to an end. Our clearing operation has delivered good results, at the upper end of our expectations. But university admissions are changing. The process has become a complex exercise. Newspapers publish supplements; soap operas run stories. Change is in the air, after a long period of stability. University admissions arrangements hardly changed at all in the five decades after the introduction of Ucas (then UCCA) in 1961. Before 1961, students applied separately to as many universities as they wished, but there was a clear consensus on the need for a single gateway system instead. Everyone became familiar with the routine of a January deadline for most subjects, conditional offers and firm acceptance dates leading up to the mid-August publication of A-level results. A national admissions system combined with central management of student numbers gave the sector stability.
This long-term stability makes the changes of the past half-decade striking, with a number of factors producing change. The decade-long decline in the number of 18-year-olds means that there will be some 20% fewer in 2022 than there were in 2012. The removal of student number caps in 2015 created what is essentially an open market in recruitment. And universities have become more directly competitive with each other. The subsequent volatility in student numbers has created challenges for universities – both for those who have grown rapidly, with impacts on systems, accommodation and group sizes, and those who have struggled, with impacts on balance sheets.
Many students have learned that university admission is a buyers’ market. As a result, January deadlines for Ucas applications have lost significance. Students have recognised that late application (entering the system in June or July through “early clearing”) does not disadvantage them given that numbers are uncapped, and that adjustment (looking for an offer from a more selective course of study) is possible quite late in the process.
A good deal of this activity is a consequence of the unreliability of predicted grades, which turn out to be wrong in around a fifth of cases. Predicted grades were the currency of the pre-2015 system; they worked for universities as a rough guide to expected attainment, and they helped to keep study and revision on track. Universities have responded in rational but controversial ways. Confronted with an open recruitment market, the unreliability of predicted grades and the vast amount of prior attainment data available on candidates, they have offered various forms of unconditional offers at different tiers of the attainment hierarchy. At Sheffield Hallam, we do make use of unconditional offers for students with very high predicated grades, but we do not make those unconditional offers dependent on making us a firm choice. We want able students to make a positive decision to choose this university but approaches like this have changed the traditional admissions cycle.
In what has become a very open marketplace, relationship management with prospective students is incredibly important. At Sheffield Hallam we are well-advanced with this, and we stay in touch with applicants from first engagement. Our Open Days, which are superbly managed, matter; this year, every student with a firm offer from the university will be receiving a handwritten postcard from a current student or member of staff – about a hundred and twenty of them will get cards from me. All our incoming students will also receive a copy of the book our library team have chosen for the Hallam Big Read – Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon. Given that potential applicants can move at any point in the process, nurturing a relationship is one way universities can seek to avoid losing students who may be tempted elsewhere.
The applications system has some articulate critics. Many would prefer a system of post-qualification admissions, in which application is postponed until after A-level results are published. Almost everyone is in favour of post-qualification admissions until they explore the detail. In 2013, an expert task group developed a detailed map of what such a system might look like. It would mean moving A-levels forward, which would squeeze teaching time (unpopular with teachers); running the entire applications process during the school holidays, which would render school staff less available to support applicants (almost certainly unfair on less privileged candidates); and moving the start of university term back, which would impact on the shape of the academic year (unpopular with academics).
We are left with an imperfect system: an open recruitment market grafted on to a centrally managed system with multiple, overlapping deadlines. So much of the way the system operates has been a series of responses to external pressures: demographics, student number control, sharper and more competitive marketisation. University and students navigate their way through this; and it is important that students are supported – that’s as true at the end of the process as much as a the beginning and middle. This year, we will have helped almost 7000 students through to a place at this university – a success for us and for them.
At some point there will be a need for a root-and-branch review of the way the system operates. The 2013 review showed how difficult that will be, and a more perfect system needs to be fit for purpose irrespective of the size of the 18-year-old cohort and external pressures on universities. The next shift in dynamic will follow from the increases in the size of the 18-year-old cohort after 2021. Revising current arrangements for a difficult-to-predict system will prove extraordinarily challenging.
In the meantime, there are real students behind each of those dots. Each one of them is welcome, each one of them has a story to tell about their journey – literal and metaphoric, academic and emotional – to this university. The new academic year is a time of optimism and excitement for them. And for me too.