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New practice in student admissions

The sector will be damaged if integrity in recruitment is lost, says Janet Graham

Recuitment illustration (27 June 2013)

Some approaches, while appearing to give institutions an edge, potentially push the boundaries of acceptable practice

The principle that the process of applying to study at university or college will be fair lies at the heart of UK admissions. And although the public’s perception of what “fair admission” means in practice is not clearly defined, people and the press are quick to pass judgement when the principle is challenged.

But with our universities and colleges operating in an increasingly competitive landscape, can prospective students and the public be assured that fairness still underpins what institutions do?

Last year, the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions programme’s Fair Admissions Group reaffirmed the importance of five principles published in the 2004 Schwartz report on fair admissions to higher education.

It is worth restating them. Admissions should be transparent; enable institutions to select students who are able to complete the course, as judged by their achievements and potential; strive to use assessment methods that are reliable and valid; seek to minimise barriers to applicants; and be professional in every respect. All this should be underpinned by appropriate institutional structures and processes, the report said.

Working with SPA, institutions across the UK have come a long way in implementing these principles and ensuring their well-trained staff provide a high-quality service.

But the many policy changes and initiatives introduced throughout the UK academy from 2012 – including higher tuition fees, student number controls, the push to use contextual information in admissions, and more higher education offered in further education colleges and by independent providers – are having an impact.

Together with the economic situation, this has caused nervousness among those involved in admissions, widening access and planning.

Last year’s caution in making offers has been replaced with a vigorously proactive approach to attracting applicants, including a significant increase in marketing budgets, particularly in England. Institutions are seeking – and finding – new ways to provide themselves with a competitive edge or unique selling point.

This is inevitable in a world in which student choice is a key driver for institutions, but it also brings an even greater focus on recruitment activities and incentives.

SPA has concerns that some approaches, while appearing to give institutions an edge, potentially push the boundaries of acceptable practice and fair admissions – to the detriment of the sector and the confusion of applicants.

This carries a long-term cost, as it could harm institutions’ reputations among prospective students, parents, schools, colleges and the public. Short-term fixes must be thought through.

Is it possible in a competitive admissions environment for universities and colleges to work to agreed principles and to guarantee sound practice? SPA believes they can and must, and has a vital role to play here.

We are keen to ensure that we provide the right support to institutions, helping to share good practice and ensuring that the five principles of fair admissions continue to hold strong.

With the approach of the summer results season, the confirmation of places and the recruitment of students through clearing, this could not be more pressing.

Our work includes researching the evidence base for the use of contextual information in admissions; building a community of practice with colleges offering higher education; considering good practice in the area of admissions and student number controls; running events; and offering advice. We are also members of the advisory group reviewing the UK Quality Code for recruitment and admissions.

All applicants should be able to trust that the system of getting into university or college works fairly and provides genuine equality of opportunity.

Admissions are, rightly, the responsibility of individual universities and colleges – they set their own entry criteria, choose their own assessment methods and select their own students. But with this academic freedom comes the responsibility to act with integrity.

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