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‘Independent’ Oxford application exposes system’s weaknesses

First-year student who claimed to have more than ten A-grade A levels suspended while ‘discrepancies’ are investigated. Melanie Newman reports

The system for verifying university applications has come under scrutiny after a student was suspended for allegedly lying about his qualifications.

The first-year student applied to the University of Oxford as an “independent” applicant who was not affiliated to a school or other educational establishment.

According to reports, he falsely claimed to have at least ten A-grade A levels and also forged a reference from a teacher.

He was suspended after “academic discrepancies” were noticed in his personal record.

The case has focused attention on the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service’s systems for checking independent applicants’ claims.

At present, students who do not apply to university through their schools are expected to compile their own applications, including references, and send them to Ucas.

In 2008 and 2009, 23 per cent of all applications were made by unaffiliated individuals.

A lecturer who contacted Times Higher Education with concerns about the system said he had contacted Ucas about the potential for abuse as far back as 2006.

“At the time we were assured by Ucas that the process whereby applicants not applying through school could paste their own references into applications was a temporary expedient only,” he said.

In 2009, the lecturer, who asked not to be named, said he was asked by a friend to write a reference for a course.

“I was shocked to find that, three years on, the procedure was unchanged – security of application compromised for administrative expediency.

“So feel free to write your own reference, folks – or get a parent or friend to write it.”

He pointed out that many of the most sensitive applications, for example from ex-offenders, would not come from schools.

And he added: “Ucas’ sister organisation, the Graduate Teacher Training Registry, has a perfectly secure system for academic referees providing online references directly.”

Ucas said it was taking a “phased approach” to addressing the issue.

In 2009, it introduced a system whereby independent applicants could “attach” themselves to a former educational establishment for the purposes of supplying a reference.

A Ucas spokesman said: “A reference supplied in this way will not be able to be amended by applicants. The full solution, where independent applicants will be required to nominate a referee who will then be contacted by Ucas for a reference, will be introduced in 2010 for entry in 2011.”

He said institutions were always alerted to references attached by applicants and should have their own “controls for verifying their validity and accuracy”.

A spokeswoman for Oxford said: “The Ucas system has been developed in this way to encourage mature students and those from non-traditional educational backgrounds to apply to top universities.

“Making the system more complex risks deterring those ‘hard-to-reach’ candidates from applying to highly competitive universities such as Oxford. However, checking the veracity of these individual applications is a challenge for the whole university sector.”

Oxford’s intensive selection and teaching system helped to minimise the risk of fraud going undetected, she added.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

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