University admissions is about human beings, not algorithms

It’s an exciting time for admissions teams. Provided there are no Trump/Johnson disasters – or, at least none that top what’s already been normalised – you’ll find us, alongside the applicants jumping for joy and clutching their results slips, or nervously embarking on a potentially life changing telephone call, dominating the front pages. It’s truly our time to shine!

Exciting, maybe, but it does suggest that the rest of the year is spent rather in the dark. Never mind the fact that last week we were dealing with the Scottish results. Even in the last few days we’ll have been locked away from the August sunshine furiously comparing thousands of applicants’ results against their offers, ready to present our Senior Leaders with an opening picture well before the final decisions need to be made. This year I’ll work my 14th results weekend, and not once have I spotted the press camping outside eager to capture this thrilling operation. True, the hotlines get interest. But, otherwise, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this work just sort of magically happens.

The human side of admissions

Contrary to many reports, including a recent Wonkhe blog, we don’t all have access to a swizzy algorithm that just “does admissions” for us. Hard data isn’t readily available, but as a community of practitioners, we talk about this a lot. We’re all under pressure – the classic hygiene service that is rarely considered a priority for resources. With the turnaround of the demographic dip looming large, the idea of a robust and reliable bit of coding that could make decisions is attractive.

For those who see admissions and recruitment through the lens of “cost per recruit”, or as a distraction from the “real business of a university” (a real quote from an academic registrar at another institution), this sort of functionality is a must have. But the reality is that we haven’t got anything sophisticated enough (yet). Which means that – for now – while some admissions teams will have software helping them by guessing at whether applicants have met their offers or not and sifting them into groups accordingly, even then a human pair of eyes will be checking whether the sift was correct before the “yes” or “no” button gets pressed.

You would be forgiven for thinking it’s easy. So often we talk about the student as consumer, and think of recruitment and admission as sales teams. When the sector got serious about the application of consumer protection law, we were regularly invited to think of ourselves as sofa salesmen. Fine in contract terms, but if you sell a sofa, you tend not to have to worry about what to do if the customer is trying to pay with a mixture of currencies. You don’t need to worry about how you’ll justify selling your last sofa to this customer instead of that customer. You don’t need a paper trail confirming that the buyer will definitely know how to sit on the sofa properly and get the most out of it. You won’t get a freedom of information request for data on how many customers were interested in buying it, how rich each of them was, and whether they eventually bought or not.

Formulating an offer – the right offer – is an art. Accepting someone is equivalent to being able to say that you have a complete and verified case file that you can show to whichever regulators might be about to visit. Even if you don’t buy into the possibility that the admissions process could add value to the student experience (there’s a thought!), and reduce it to a purely transactional process, you have to acknowledge that it’s one where the consequences of getting it wrong are serious.

The harsh glare of the spotlight

I know we are not alone in admissions. There are many other areas of higher education administration where the teams’ business simply isn’t trendy enough to command interest, except when things go wrong. But it’s always a hot topic for us – you can guarantee in any cross-sector meeting of admissions practitioners, somebody will bemoan the lack of institution interest in their work. Another will respond darkly: “be careful what you wish for… they’re very interested in us after last year”. Perhaps we just grin and bear it. We can’t all be the priority.

Except… for all that this is our big moment, there have been a lot of admissions headlines this year. Unconditional offers, contextual data, bias, you name it. For practitioners it feels as though there’s a general underlying thread that we’re inefficient/ineffective, and need a bit of a sorting. Step in not one but two reviews, along with endless calls for post qualification admissions and the associated unfounded, incorrect and naive claims that that will stop unconditional offers.

Shoring up good practice and identifying opportunities for improvement are to be welcomed. What wouldn’t help – both in terms of our reputation as a sector and the expectations and experiences of applicants – would be a series of lofty recommendations coming from well-meaning places, but ultimately undeliverable, or with unintended consequences, unforeseen unless this is your business day-in-day-out. It’s a shame then – if not unsurprising – that membership of such review panels rarely includes on the ground practitioners.

Those practitioners will be pulling out all the stops this week. Those knowledgeable, active, professional, committed practitioners who for the most part genuinely care about what they do. If you see them, spare them a thought. Buy them a coffee. They’ll need it. Above all, remember that they’re there all year round. You never know – letting them out into the sun from time to time could really get you somewhere.

3 responses to “University admissions is about human beings, not algorithms

  1. Smashing article, well done Kim, I look forward to an influx of coffees from altruistic staff members over the next few days 😉

    In particular…

    “What wouldn’t help – both in terms of our reputation as a sector and the expectations and experiences of applicants – would be a series of lofty recommendations coming from well-meaning places, but ultimately undeliverable, or with unintended consequences, unforeseen unless this is your business day-in-day-out.”

    I’m very fearful of any recommendations from either review that imply we are currently unfair or out of shape. I’ve yet to see a PQA recommendation for example that truly reflects and understands the processes and complexities of both admissions and the students we are trying to admit. Time for us practitioners to truly work together and input.

  2. Fantastic article which recognises the true human side of admissions and the impact of admissions professionals across the sector in changing people’s lives. Just yesterday, an applicant from Columbia came to the admissions office to say ‘thank you’ to a colleague who had helped her throughout the application process and to bring him a small gift from her country. One of many rewarding moments as an admissions practitioner, which could never be replaced by a machine.

    Admissions is often in the spotlight at institutional level, in the sector and in the press more generally. The admissions community needs to work together to propose solutions and to challenge some of the key issues which we face.

  3. What has being admitted to a university course got to do with Trump or Johnson? Your virtue signalling is pathetic.

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