(No longer) Supporting Professionalism in Admissions?

Citing a change in the nature of the admissions market and the need to deliver value for money, UCAS announced on 7th July that its funding for Supporting Professional Admissions (SPA) would cease in December 2017, although some online materials would be maintained.

Coming as it did at a particularly busy time of year for admissions staff and a time of intense political scrutiny on sector agencies, their funding structures and role, we decided to look in the background behind the decision and what it means for the agency and the agenda it championed.

We spoke to UCAS in depth and asked why the decision was made without a wider review of SPA and its services. Helen Thorne, Director of Policy at UCAS pointed to the independent review of SPA during 2014-15 which largely supported the findings of previous reviews. “Given the reviews that have already been undertaken, UCAS concluded that another independent view would not only be costly, but unlikely to yield new evidence or opinions that have not already been surfaced and explored.”

The decision has surprised many current and former admissions professionals. Stewart Harper, Deputy Secretary and Registrar at Leeds Beckett University, said: “I hope an alternative funding approach can be found – while keeping the materials available is helpful, the need for applicant focused guidance is as important now as it ever was.” Another regular SPA user who knows the organisation well said: “The Supporting Professionalism in Admissions programme has relentlessly championed fair admissions, and if we lose the programme as is suggested, I’m very concerned the momentum will be lost.”

An interesting history

Supporting Professionalism in Admissions was set up following the recommendations of the 2004 Schwartz Review. Schwartz recommended “the creation of a central source of expertise and advice on admissions issues, perhaps situated within the HE Academy. Its purpose would be to act as a resource for institutions who wish to maintain and enhance excellence in admissions.” It would end up being situated in UCAS and funding initially came from the four UK funding councils.

But in 2013 HEFCE took the decision to reduce its contribution to £0 by 2015 – following a newly established pattern of requiring sector agencies to seek alternate funding. UCAS stepped in to cover the c. £400,000 annual running costs, alongside a small amount from HEFCW (£20,000) and this arrangement continued until last week’s announcement. SPA itself brought income into UCAS (£122,807 in 2015, £33,354 in 2016) from paid-for services offered to institutions.

The HEFCE predilection for defunding sector bodies over the past few years has led to a rash of requests for institutional subscriptions to agencies formerly supported by central funding. This famously came to a head in early 2016 with the Higher Education Academy request for funding from institutions being largely rejected by their owners, Universities UK – a state of affairs that led to the re-examination of sector agency funding by the Bell Review.

UCAS latterly joined the list of agencies under consideration in the Bell Review, which asked it to form a strategic delivery partnership with HESA, Jisc and HECSU. However, SPA sailed under the radar of the review, as it is not an agency ‘owned’ by UUK and GuildHE on behalf of the sector.

HEFCE is still keeping a careful eye on the area. A spokesperson told us: “HEFCE agreed to transfer the support for SPA to UCAS from 2012. We recognise the contribution SPA has made to supporting professionalism in admissions and widening participation both during and since the period of HEFCE funding. We will be working with UCAS to ensure that the resources SPA has created continue to be available for admissions practitioners across the sector.”

Impact measures

SPA provides independent advice to institutions on all aspects of fair admissions processes – work on supporting applicants with disabilities has been particularly praised. But as with many advisory sector agencies, it is difficult to point to a direct measure of value or impact. The resources are well used (there are registered users at over 200 HE providers, though it has been suggested that attendance at events – for example – is low), but those who use it speak highly of what is offered.

However, SPA was developed in the days of the student number cap and far more selective recruitment. Has the competitive market for student numbers between providers made a space like SPA less relevant? UCAS’ statements about the decision certainly hint at this underlying driver for pulling the funding, and Helen Thorne told us that “this decision is about how appropriate it is for UCAS to carry on funding it and how well SPA fits in with today’s higher education landscape”. For landscape, in this context, we read ‘market’.

There is probably still a case to be made for the work – regardless of where or who delivers it. Fairness in admissions has a much wider meaning than fair selectivity and institutions may still have barriers to entry that could disadvantage those from non-traditional backgrounds, mature students, students with disabilities, and those with a criminal record. Removing the student numbers cap was not a magic bullet for addressing these more complex issues although admissions practice has improved and professionalised markedly since the days of Schwartz.

Show me the money

The challenge for the SPA team now is to identify an alternate source of funding for the service. UCAS is committed to supporting this process, but the fact that the search is being done in public is unorthodox.

UCAS told us that cost effectiveness was a major factor in the Board’s decision. “It’s not about how well SPA has functioned or as a part of the support UCAS provides to the higher education sector,” explained Helen Thorne. “SPA’s work has been valuable and important, and the team is dedicated and talented.” But the money was a deciding factor – as Thorne explained, “SPA costs £350k per year in terms of its direct costs alone and we would expect to make a saving equivalent to most of this cost.”

UCAS has two main income streams based directly on the applications process, a fee charged to prospective students (currently £24 for two or more applications) and a capitation fee charged to providers and based on the number of students accepted via UCAS (currently £22.77 per student, rising to £25 for the 2018 cycle – with a minimum annual fee based on 100 students). There is also a charge, based on institution size, for entry to the scheme.

While the ongoing arithmetical fall in applications will hurt UCAS income, it is hardly an organisation short of cash. It has – after all – an annual turnover of around £24m.

Speaking to professionals in this area, it has become clear that there is a general desire to maintain support for excellent practice in admissions. UCAS said that “We recognise that in the current environment, universities, colleges, and sector organisations are facing cost pressures. However, we also believe it is important that higher education providers and stakeholders continue to have access to fair admissions good practice.” Even if alternative funding is not available, UCAS is “committed to make SPA resources and toolkit freely available online – and to commission updates as needed.”

But for now, the staff at SPA, and service users around the sector are publicly hoping for a saviour.

Additional reporting: Mark Leach

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