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A headshot image of the author, Jon Cheek

by Jon Cheek


posted on 17 Aug '17

Is the undergraduate university application system fit for purpose? A post-results day blog

Having previously worked in undergraduate recruitment for several years, I unfortunately know first-hand about phone calls from heartbroken applicants on results day. These are the students, who, for whatever reason, miss out on a place with their university of choice.

The same students will have received a year of email communications about how great the university is, would have told their friends and family all about the fantastic university they will be studying at, attended an open day and everything else in between.

Then... they will have gone online on the day of their results to see in an instant that their dream for the last year or more is shattered because they have not achieved the grades they needed to be accepted for their university of choice.

Is this avoidable? Could students apply after their results?

Let’s look at the situation here. The current system expects potentially fragile 17 or 18 year old students who have not achieved the grades they expected, to make a rational choice on their future in just one day. This is not a day they prepare for; this is the same day which will have started with the biggest disappointment of their lives.

So say they pick clearing, and looking for a course and university which still have places available. Not one they wanted you remember, or one they have considered previously.

What happens then? Phone call after phone call. Universities don’t declare course by course the grades they are looking for. The only way to know is by calling each one. Oh, and quickly of course, because those places will be on a first come, first served basis (for those with the right grades).

We are in the 21st century, where I imagine a prospective student can count the number of phone calls to anyone outside their friends and family on one hand. Those reading this may have read about changes we need to make in the workplace for millennials, but these are post-millennials now, Generation Z to be more precise. Times are changing, but we still use a university application timeline which has been the same for as long as I can remember.

We are also told university retention is so important, prompting various data sets relating to reducing the number of students who drop out of their course of study. It's not rocket science to expect an increase in dropout rates for students not studying where they want, what they want, and being forced into a one day decision when not in the best frame of mind though.

It is not easy for universities either...

Universities are reliant on predicted grades from teachers and a student’s GCSE grades when making offers, now AS levels no longer serve as a guide. So universities themselves are making gambles on what they expect their applicant's grades to be. This gamble is not a small one, with £9,250 fees and three year courses. If a university does not hit a student recruitment target by 100 students, that is £2.75 million in lost fee income.

We are also told of the importance of students making informed university choices. This is despite the student using an application system where they apply for university places, with ranging tariff requirements, without knowing the grades they will have and any concreate proof of where their academic strengths lie (through knowing their most recent results).

Regardless of what people think about student fees and finance, and talk of most fees not being paid back within 30 years of graduation, we are still talking about a £50,000 + investment for tuition fees and living costs for the majority of students, and something money can’t buy, at least three years of their lives.

To change things may mean the university application start date would be pushed back, if results could not be processed quicker, and it may also mean university admissions departments would be dealing with undergraduate applications during August – October rather than throughout the year.

I am not suggesting a change would be easy, but I think it is worth further investigation. Let’s not forget, higher education is something the UK is known for worldwide – four of the top 10 institutions in the world are from the UK, it is important we don’t rest on our laurels.

Guest blog by Jon Cheek

Jon is the Commercial Director of UniTasterDays, an award winning website to connect schools and universities. Jon has previously worked during clearing and results day for three universities.

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