This article is more than 4 years old

Students seek a human side to admissions

With the release of the latest HEPI/YouthSight survey data, David Kernohan wonders if students are really supporting contextual admissions as we understand them.
This article is more than 4 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

From the perspective of students, most applications to higher education are never read by a human being. From the UCAS website to the generation of an offer letter, the process is largely an automated one predicated on predicted grades.

When the actual grades appear in August those who match are in, and to be honest those who nearly match are usually in too.

Some institutions do a bit more scrutiny on borderline cases. Clearing students can expect more scrutiny as they will, at some point, have to speak to someone at the institution they hope to study at. But the calculus of how close to full the courses with what your grades look like hugely overpowers whatever it was you put in the UCAS statement or say on the phone. Unless you are applying for a super-niche course or from a very unconventional background, no one will ever read your UCAS statement.

Adding a contextual component to this grim process is a matter of using the demographic data on your form (where you live and where you went to school as a proxy for deprivation) to put the thumb on the A level scales a little. It doesn’t quite humanise admissions, but it attempts to address one key criticism – that where you went to school or how much your family earn has a huge impact on what grades you get. This morning’s HEPI report notes the excellent work of Vikki Boliver and her team at Durham – just one percent of young people on free school meals achieve AAA or better, compared to twenty per cent of all other state pupils.

The average prospective student knows little of the reality of admissions, so we can hardly be surprised when most don’t know if their university makes lower offers to disadvantaged students, and a sizable majority think they do. Both answers are correct – institutions probably do make lower offers (via clearing, or just as an early attempt to hit student number targets with a low or unconditional offer) to disadvantaged students, but they may not “know” this (in the strict sense of including it as a factor in their decision-making) at the time.

Context in context

The best contextual offer is an unconditional one. A decision is made on the first seventeen-and-a-bit years of a prospective student’s life and the stressful six months before they start (including those A level results that correlate so closely with deprivation) is disregarded.

However, policy-makers have taken a variety of idiotic stands on this issue so we have to go to the next best option – making lower offers to people we feel deserve them. The fairest way to do this is to interview people in order to properly get to know them, their lives, their ambitions. But this flagrant display of academic judgement would be expensive and potentially invite litigation.

Like every other major problem in HE, we instead apply large amounts of data. If we know where someone lives, what school they went to, and whether they identify as disabled we can approximate the effects of these characteristics on A level results, and then simply take this into account on calculating a reduced tariff on the standard offer.

Students agree (72%) that applications should take into account student backgrounds, but the survey sample is deeply split (47% to 45%) on whether this should mean a lower offer. This is a nuanced response and should be analysed as such. Students feel overwhelmingly that context should be a factor in offer making, but don’t think necessarily think that a straight tariff reduction is a way to do this.

Perhaps students feel that the wider sweep of their personal qualities and life course is what lands them a place. Or what should land them a place. There’s certainly little concern that students without the requisite grades are not intellectually capable of study – at least not among the students actually on the course (54% of the sample agree).

Application status

“Required” grades are a status symbol, and like many other status symbols they are closely correlated with advantage and background – for both institutions and applicants. Many subjects pay little heed to A level results – practical arts subjects are more closely focused on a portfolio of work, and medicine has made huge steps towards admitting rounded students with interests beyond their compulsory-level studies.

For prospective students who require additional support gain specific skills required for study, integrated foundation years have done much to allow access to intensive courses for students for disadvantaged backgrounds. Again, the mainstream of policy opinion has recently turned against this idea – Augar memorably recommends against the funding of these programmes, for cost reasons.

11 responses to “Students seek a human side to admissions

  1. Bit disappointed with this. “Most applications to higher education are never read by a human” is just incorrect. This is why admissions practitioners are still being quizzed over the value of the personal statement. Students pour their heart in to these applications, don’t devalue that effort by implying we’re not interested (or worse, disadvantage them in the pursuit of a place).

    Every UCAS application that comes through to NTU is assessed by a human in my team. And that’s just to get a decision, even before we think about looking for declared mitigating circumstances for example. Not to mention the thousands of teachers who read them before they are submitted to provide references.

    Linking the use of predicted grades and confirmation of decisions to automation is also misleading (and makes assumptions about applicant qualification profiles!).

    Admissions is a place where real people work to change lives, not a ‘grim process’ without care.

  2. Our everyday experience of working with admissions teams across the country is that most universities continue to value and use personal statements as part of admissions decision making – to say otherwise is wrong.

    Our survey data backs this up too. The last time we asked universities about this in 2016, 89% of them said they used personal statements in their initial decision making.

    Personal statements and references are used across the admissions process, particularly when admissions teams are deciding on whether to make an offer (and the type of offer), and during the confirmation process, when a student might have narrowly missed out on the grades needed.

    Studying for a degree is a major commitment for three or four years of your life. Everyone applying to university should be encouraged to reflect on why they want to pursue a particular subject and a personal statement gives students the opportunity to express their interests in their own words. Each personal statement and reference, combined with contextual data, creates a unique portrait of a student’s drive and potential to succeed on their chosen course.

  3. Would David care to share the research behind the assertion that “most applications… are never read by a human being”? As with Amy and the NTU team, all applications at Warwick are read by a human. It takes a long time and a lot of effort but it’s the current best way to match applicants and places. As a sector we talk frequently about automated selection but nobody’s identified a way that can be trusted.

    I’m surprised to read this – we get enough negative press as it is. Most of our community work really hard to conduct admissions in a fair considered and professional way and it’s a shame to see that undermined by claims like this.

  4. unfortunately, not properly researching important topics (ironic for a HE site) before making big claims -and alienating a decent chunk of your audience- are the only ‘grim processes’ on show here.

    I’d say the thousands of humans working in admissions are owed an apology

  5. I shadowed multiple admissions teams while working at Supporting Professionalism in Admissions and can confirm that everywhere I visited, applications were read by human beings.

    Admissions teams also answer enquiries over phone, email and on web chats, and meet applicants face to face, and put on events conferences for applicants and advisors. So do the Ucas team. So taking the applicant expertise as a whole I think it’s more human than this article would suggest.

  6. I’ve had background discussions with people in and around the application process. Clearly commentators above have different experiences, and I’d invite pitches with alternate viewpoints.

    To be clear, I was using automation in the sense that an offer is triggered primarily by predicted grades rather than other parts of the form. To the student (and the HEPI/YouthSight research was about the student experience) this can feel impersonal. Clearly UCAS forms are read by human beings, not least to support the collation of applicant demographic data.

  7. Um. no. demographic data is system-generated via the online UCAS form and transmitted in various formats to institutions, not manually collated from ucas forms.

    If you agree that you’ve misapplied the term ‘automation’ perhaps it would be best to re-draft parts of the article.

  8. The problem with pitching an alternative viewpoint to this would be that you appear to have just posted some click-baitey claims based on a few anecdotal conversations and relied on a definition of the word automation that had to be clarified in the comment section (and it still doesn’t make a great deal of sense).

    I think a more common definition of automation is a process or procedure performed with minimal human input, which seems to accurately describe this article…

    If you’re really willing to accept an equally anecdotal rebuttal then I’m sure somebody will oblige, or perhaps you could volunteer to conduct some actual empirical research on the topic? Or give us a better idea of your sources so we can see how you generated this idea so that we can address it more effectively? (Job title and mission group could be a start).

    You’re speaking directly to people engaged in the production and dissemination of knowledge. You have to know that the expectations placed upon you are much, much higher than this article demonstrates…

  9. Will the first sentence (and others) be changed now that you recognise that personal statements are read?

    Anyone putting forward an alternative viewpoint also risks being branded as having an ‘idiotic’ stance too, which one doesnt think many would be jumping at the chance to.

  10. I was turned down for year 2 of a part time of the PGCE despite the website stating clearly that I was entitled to funding. 3 managers while I hang on the line simply repeated the mantra Computer says no. When I asked why I had been funded last year I was told it was down to an error. Back to the institution who checked and changed the codes for the previous year and the whole thing sailed through – computer says yes!.. OfS shouldn’t be admitting students onto 2 year courses if they are unable to complete them because the funding isn’t there. It didn’t impress.

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