Are university open days closing doors to access?

As an admissions professional and the parent of a son in Year 12, I can’t help but wonder if part of the barrier to entry into higher education happens at the pre-application stage.

Since the introduction of higher fees in 2012, the Students Loans Company and universities have been at pains to promote the fact that a degree is “free at the point of entry”, but what about the hidden costs you incur even before you complete the UCAS applications form?

It’s not cheap

My son has just booked six open day visits, with the six he’s chosen fairly well spread across the country. To drive to all six universities’ open days, assuming a cost of 40p a mile, this would equate to around £600 in petrol costs. To maximise time, visiting neighbouring universities could be done in one weekend, but then accommodation costs would need to be added to the equation. Even being frugal with living expenses, it’s unlikely families would see much change from £1000 by the time they are finished. For those who don’t drive, the cost of train travel would undoubtedly have been higher.

Some universities offer travel bursaries to students, based on household income and the circumstances of the student. Of the universities we will be visiting only one had a bursary for up to £100 travel costs for the open day itself, while another will reimburse costs for travel to an offer holder day. Even if all the costs are reimbursed it does not take into account that families on low incomes are less likely to own a car and more likely to work shifts at the weekends or be reliant on weekend overtime.

Open Days offer an edge

Some families can afford to take their children to visit universities across the country, but how would an applicant from a low-income family approach this? Would they disregard the universities too far from home, make their UCAS application without visits or simply decide not to go to university at all? Many universities are now offering virtual open days which is helpful, but it remains to be seen if this is a real substitute for a face to face visit where you can get the ‘vibe’ of the place, meet the academics and current students and talk through what it’s really like to study there. Universities are also offer sessions during their open day on what it takes to make a successful application to their institution, so not attending the day could put their UCAS application at a distinct disadvantage.

There is also a potential consumer rights angle to this. If applicants are applying to universities they’ve not visited, how can they satisfy themselves they are making the right choice? Would you make an investment of £55k and commit three years of your life based on the information and claims you’ve read from a website?

Levelling the playing field

So, what’s the solution? There is no silver bullet, but we should start a discussion around a number of areas that might help:

I’d like to see a post qualification admissions model so at least applicants from low income families would have a clearer picture of whether they are likely to be accepted to a university before they invest significant amount of the family budget on a visit.

The sector should also consider why applicants have to apply for five universities and courses through the main application cycle. At a time when 92% of all applicants are receiving offers from at least one of their five choices, why not restrict this to three (thereby reducing the number of open day visits required) and then use Extra as it was intended as a second application cycle for those that hold no offers or that have changed their minds about courses, before clearing.

Finally, individual universities could offer more financial assistance in the way of meal vouchers or travel bursaries as part of their access and participation plans. For example, at my institution, we have been working to reduce this cost barrier by running free coaches for our applicants and their parents.

These measures individually or collectively could help reduce the financial burden of open days for all families, not just those on lower incomes.

6 responses to “Are university open days closing doors to access?

  1. “open day visits required”? They’re not required. “what it takes to make a successful application to their institution” is also made clear via university websites etc. and they employ plenty of friendly people to answer questions by phone and e-mail. Typically the answers are neither surprising nor unusual which is why the same personal statement can go to them all. Away from the “official” view from their admissions webpages and prospectuses there is also no shortage of information from surveys and forums and suchlike about the real student experience if one looks around online, including via social media.

    Open days can be useful but they hardly offer special critical privileged information that is not otherwise available somehow though they do function as a handy source of free bags and pens. (The best we got was a tasty little cake.) We visited a few (and again to subsequent applicant days) more *in case* they were useful than because they were; the main information we came away with was how horrible the student flats looked (not naming any names!) but then maybe I could have discovered that via Instagram and its like.

    There *is* a valid point being made here about equality and access — I came from a low-income family myself and didn’t visit every university that offered me an interview — but the rhetorical exaggeration just detracts from it, especially these days when information is so much more discoverable from afar. For those I was able to visit, I’m not sure the extra information much swayed me beyond what I’d already discovered, though I did think Exeter’s filled rolls were tasty. (-:

  2. Having done the rounds a few years ago I’d say for most it’s an expensive day out, but for all the on-line information and glossy handouts its the perspective you get from informally chatting with current students that can make or break that University as an option.

    My son having travelled to 7 different Universities decided on 2 possibles, one of which demanding AAA+ was unlikely, the reasons the other 5 failed to convince him, and us, were quite varied. Poor transport links and overly expensive rental markets didn’t help 2, damp (wet with water running down the walls) hall’s at Sussex, the appalling attitude from the academics at Southampton and too big and impersonal in Brum.

    Breakfasting in Winchester where we were joined by a DVC set the tone for all subsequent visits, friendly, not too large, enthusiastic staff and a genuine interest in the potential student, not just another ‘bum on a seat’, and whilst I didn’t like part of the VC’s speech (about limiting academics freedom) none of the others except Kent (AAA+) came close.

  3. Thank you so much Julie for highlighting this issue and citing three workable solutions.
    As someone writing Access and Participation Plans (APPs) I agree that it would be very good for this to be a feature in them.

  4. Actually, there is a silver bullet. Have you thought about asking whether anyone else in your son’s school wants to visit the same university open day? Car sharing saves massively on cost, reduces congestion and is also good environmentally. If there are enough of you, costs come down even more if you hire a minibus or a people carrier.

  5. Hi Julie , a really thought provoking article thank you.
    My experience for what’s its worth – I studied at Brunel in the 90s via a last minute clearing offer, with no prior open day visit, as my hope had been to stay in Northern Ireland at the time at a local university where and which I was already familiar with through basketball. Sport had given me those opportunities to access both Queens and Ulster sport facilities regularly to participate in club competitions and remains a really great way of exposing universities to potential applicants. When I realised I couldn’t access them as a undergraduate student due to probably both SNC plus a HND progression route from a local college being rescinded which was something I’d undertaken to attempt to stay locally for my degree , I ended studying much further away than planned and at an institution I had no experience of previously visiting. It was such a cultural shock and a harsh reality I found myself facing in 1994 but I’m sure it no different to many others in my situation in those days :You just went where you could !

    Fast forward 25 yrs and I’ve found myself having spent a number of years having hosted Open Days information sessions to rooms more full of parents and grandparents than applicants. Whilst the pressure to add more and more Open Days into the academic calendar mounts, despite reducing attendances, there is definitely an urgent need to revisit this model and consider how to reshape it. It can be resource heavy and costly for institutions particularly those who reimburse their staff to host/ attend these events.

    Best wishes,

    Anya

  6. As the mother of a child wanting to pursue a career in Dance / Musical Theatre (BA courses) we also have to pay ‘audition fees’ of £35 – £40 per course application. Some audition days see 150+ students and my (rather short) daughter struggles to stand out in the crowd especially when there are hundreds of applications for each place. This is a real additional cost, and as many audition days start at 8.30am often entails over-night accommodation as well as travel (and the cost of various apparel). Such courses cannot be accessible for some gifted students and I wonder whether they actually make money for the colleges / universities.

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