Archive for UCAS

Admissions Latest

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on November 28, 2011 by telescoper

Only time for a short post today, so I thought I’d just pass on a link to the latest  Higher Education application  statistics, as reported by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

It’s still several weeks before the UCAS deadline closes in January so it’s too early to see exactly what is happening, but the figures do nevertheless make interesting reading.

The total number of applications nationally  is down by 12.9% on last year, but the number of  applications from UK domiciled students has fallen by 15.1%; an increase in applications from non-EU students is responsible for the difference in these figures.

Non-science subjects seem to be suffering the biggest falls in application numbers; physical sciences are doing better than average, but still face a drop of 7% in numbers. Anecdotal evidence I’ve gleaned from chatting to Physics & Astronomy colleagues is that some departments are doing very well, even increasing on last year, while others are significantly down. It is, however, far too early to tell how these numbers will translate into bums on seats in lecture theatres.

A particular concern for us here in Wales are the statistics of applications to Welsh universities.  The number of English-domiciled applicants to Welsh universities is down by 17.4% while the number of Welsh applicants to Welsh universities is down by 15.2%. On the other hand, the number of Welsh applicants to English universities is down by just 5.3%.

The pattern of cross-border applications is particularly important for Welsh Higher Education  because of the Welsh Assembly Government’s policy of subsidizing Welsh-domiciled students wherever they study in the United Kingdom, a policy which is generous to students but which is paid for by large cuts in direct university funding.  The more students take the WAG subsidy out of Wales, the larger will be the cuts in grants to Welsh HEIs.

Moreover, in the past, about 40% of the students in Welsh universities come from England.  If the fee income from incoming English students is significantly reduced relative to the subsidy paid to outgoing Welsh students then the consequences for the financial health of Welsh universities are even more dire.

Although it is early days the figures as they stand certainly suggest the possibility that the  number of Welsh students  studying in England will increase both relative to the number staying in Wales and relative to the number of English students coming to study in Wales. Both these factors  will lead to a net transfer of funds from Welsh Higher Education Institutions to their English counterparts.   I think the policy behind this is simply idiotic, but by the time the WAG works this out it may be too late.

Another interesting wrinkle on the WAG’s policy can be found in a piece in last week’s Times Higher. We’re used to the idea that people might relocate to areas where schools or  local services are better or cheaper, but consider the incentives on an English  family who are thinking of the cost of sending their offspring to University. The obvious thing for them  to do is to relocate to Wales in order to collect the WAG subsidy which they can then spend sending their little dears to university in England. That will save them tens of thousands of pounds per student, all taken directly from the Welsh Higher Education budget and paid into to the coffers of an English university.

There are already dark rumours circulating that the WAG subsidy will turn out to be so expensive that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales is thinking of cancelling all its research funding. That means that Welsh universities face the prospect of having to take part in the burdensome Research Excellence Framework, in competition with much better funded English and Scottish rivals, but getting precisely no QR funding at the end of it.

And all this is because the Welsh Assembly Government wants to hand a huge chunk of its budget back to England. Is this how devolution is supposed to work? Madness.

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University Admissions in Uncharted Territory

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on October 26, 2011 by telescoper

It turns out I have a few minutes spare before going to our staff Away (half) Day this afternoon, so I thought I’d pass on another interesting bit of news that came out this week.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Services, known to all and sundry as UCAS, has released some interesting statistical information on numbers of applicants to UK universities and how this compares with the corresponding stage in the admissions timetable last year.

We’re still very early on in the process so it would be unwise to read too much into the figures available so far. The big question, however, is whether the ConDem government’s decision to raise fees for university students to £9K per annum has had any effect on the number of students applying. In fact the headline figure is that after several years of growth in overall applicant numbers, the figures for 2012 entry are down 9% on last year. Still early days, of course, but it does look like the new fee levels may be having the deterrent effect we all expected.

Another interesting thing that struck me, from Table 6 of the UCAS analysis, is that the number of students applying to study courses in the physical sciences (including Physics & Astronomy) is down by just 1.6% on the same stage last year, compared to an average of 7.9% across all subjects. (Note that this is not the same as the 9% mentioned above, because students get more than one choice of course..).

Of particular interest to us in Wales is the breakdown of applicants by domicile and choice of institution.  From Table 4 we see that the number of English students applying to Welsh Universities is down 13.4%, while the number of Welsh-domiciled students applying to study in England is down by only 4.3%. If this differential persists then it will have a big impact on the Welsh Higher Education sector, because of the Welsh Assembly Government’s decision to cut funding for Welsh Universities in order to pay for its  subsidy for  Welsh students wanting to study in England.

It’s too early to predict what will happen to overall student numbers for 2012/13, but I’m sure planning officers in universities all around the UK will be looking at the interim figures with a considerable degree of anxiety.

A Healthy Increase

Posted in Education with tags , , , on August 25, 2011 by telescoper

Up early again this morning, I thought I’d do a quick post because I just remembered that there’s a bit of a loose end I’ve left dangling for a week or so owing to my recent indisposition.

I posted about 10 days ago about my week as “responsible person” for the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University owing to the absence of all the really responsible people on their respective vacations. By sheer coincidence my week in charge spanned the day that A-level results were announced and therefore the period during which we finalised this year’s UCAS admissions process. I had thought this might be quite a stressful time because rather late in the day we were given a significant increase in funded student numbers by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) which made it necessary for us to enter the clearing system to find the extra students.

As it turned out however the prospective students to whom we’d made offers paid back our confidence in them and a large fraction got the necessary grades. We did go into clearing, but only briefly, to pick up a relatively small number of unattached applicants who matched our criteria. I’m happy to report, therefore, that we’ve got a very healthy intake of 120 students this year, up by about 30 on last year. That’s exactly the increase we had planned for and we can cope with it without making drastic changes, such as increasing the size of tutorial groups, that would remove the personal touch that makes this such a pleasant School to work and, I hope, study in.

The hard work done all year round by admissions teams in University departments tends to be drastically undervalued, so I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Carole Tucker for doing such a great job for the School of Physics & Astronomy, ably supported by Nicola Hunt. Where we’d be without them I don’t know.

Modesty forbids me, of course, from pointing out who was acting Head of School while this all came to fruition, and who therefore really deserves the credit….

Acting and Clearing

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on August 14, 2011 by telescoper

Now that I’m back from my trip to Copenhagen, it’s going to be back to work with a vengeance. To those of you who think academics have massively long summer breaks, I can tell you that mine ends on Monday when I will be doing a stint as Acting Head of School. That’s not usually a particularly onerous task during the summer months, but next week happens to be the week that A-level results come out and it promises to be a hectic and critical period. It’s obviously a sheer coincidence that all the other senior professors have decided to take their leave at this time…

There are several reasons for this being a particularly stressful time. First the  number of potential students applying to study Physics (and related subjects) this forthcoming academic year (2011/12) in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University was up by a whopping 53% on last year. I blogged about this a few months ago when it became obvious that we were having a bumper year.

The second reason is that Cardiff’s  School of Physics & Astronomy has been given a big increase in funded student numbers  from HEFCW. In fact we’ve been given an extra 60 funded places (over two years), which is a significant uplift in our quota and a much-needed financial boost for the School. This has happened basically because of HECFW‘s desire to bolster STEM subjects as part of a range of measures related to the Welsh Assembly Government’s plans for the regions. Preparations have been made to accommodate the extra students in tutorial groups and we’re even modifying one of our larger lecture rooms to increase capacity.

Unfortunately the extra places were announced after the normal applications cycle was more-or-less completed, so the admissions team had been proceeding on the basis that demand would exceed supply for this year so has set our undergraduate offers rather high. In order to fill the extra places that have been given to us late in the day, even with our vastly increased application numbers, we will  almost certainly have to go into the clearing system to recruit some of the extra students.

In case you didn’t realise,  universities actually get a sneak preview of the A-level results a couple of days before the applicants receive them. This helps us plan our strategy, whether to accept “near-misses”, whether to go into clearing, etc.

On top of these local factors there is the sweeping change in tuition fees coming in next year (2012-13). Anxious to avoid the vastly increased cost of future university education many fewer students will be opting to defer entry than in previous years. Moreover, some English universities have had cuts in funded student places making entry highly competitive. As an article in today’s Observer makes clear, this all means that clearing is likely to be extremely frantic this year.

And once that’s out of the way I’ll be working more-or-less full time until late September on business connected with the STFC Astronomy Grants Panel, a task likely to be just as stressful as UCAS admissions for both panel members and applicants.

Ho hum.

Local Matters

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on May 12, 2011 by telescoper

I think I’ve caught up with most of the signficant things that happened during my travels, so I thought I’d end this series of updates with some local news from Cardiff (and Wales generally).

First, I can pass on some information relating to the  number of potential students applying to study Physics (and related subjects) this forthcoming academic year (2011/12) in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University.  I blogged about this a few months ago when it became obvious that we were having a bumper year. As it turns out, we finished with applications up by a whopping 53% on last year.

Second, and related to the first item, the detailed allocations of university funding in Wales have finally filtered down all the way from HEFCW, through the Cardiff University management, and onto individual schools.  As it happens, this has also turned out not too badly for us here in Physics & Astronomy. For various reasons we’ve finally been given the increase in student numbers that we have been requesting for some time without success. In fact we’ve been given an extra 60 funded places, which is a significant uplift in our quota and a much-needed financial boost for the School. This has happened basically because of HECFW‘s desire to bolster STEM subjects as part of a range of measures related to the Welsh Assembly Government’s plans for the regions.

Unfortunately the admissions team have so far been proceeding on the basis that demand would exceed supply for this year so has set our undergraduate offers rather high. In order to fill the extra places that have been given to us late in the day, even with our vastly increased application numbers we may have to go into the clearing system to recruit some of the extra bodies. We’ll have to wait until the A-level results come out in August, however, before we know what the situation really is.

It would have been a lot easier if we’d known the rules at the start of the game, rather than near the end, but that’s the way it goes when politicians start tinkering with things…

We will have to lay on extra tutorials and laboratory sessions to cope with the anticipated increase in student numbers, which will be a bit of a struggle, but the extra money they bring in should keep the wolf from the door for a while.

Another thing worth mentioning concerns research in Wales. In the run-up to the Welsh Assembly elections, the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CASE) produced a couple of interesting documents. One was about science policy in the devolved nations and the other was a comparison of STEM subjects across the UK.

These documents make it clear that Wales lags far beyond England and (particularly) Scotland in terms of investment in, and productivity of, its scientific research.  In its  recommendations for Wales, CASE included

    • The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales must increase its investment in research – as well as improving the research base directly, this investment should bring more success in winning competitive, UK-wide funding. The indirect costs of charitably funded research should continue to be covered.
    • Policies should continue to build up the critical mass of research through collaboration, including with overseas researchers or businesses.

As I reported recently, we (Cardiff, Swansea and Aberystwyth) have tried to persuade HECFW to fund a Welsh physics initiative, intended to achieve precisely what CASE suggests. Unfortunately HECFW turned our bid down. At least for the short term, additional investment in physics research is clearly not on the agenda for HEFCW.  There’s not much sign of it happening in the future either, but we will have to wait and see…

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Admissions

Posted in Education with tags , , on February 11, 2011 by telescoper

Busy day today, necessitating an early start and a packed morning followed by a trip to the Big Smoke later on.

I thought I’d use my daily post to try a little experiment.

Yesterday I mentioned that applications to do Physics courses in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University had increased enormously since last year. That prompted a couple of people to contact me, via email and Twitter, to admit that the same thing is happening at their institutions. With UCAS reporting that applications nationwide are up by only about 4%, I’m a bit confused as to what is going on.

I don’t know how many of my (1000+) daily readers work in UK universities, let alone which ones or whether they’re in a position to know what undergraduate applications are doing, but I would be very interested to hear whether this pattern is being repeated and whether it’s just physics that’s booming.

So, in lieu of a proper blog post for today, let me invite you to take part in a straw poll through the comments box. Where are you? What’s your subject? Are your applications up?

Do tell.


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Disturbing Admissions

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on January 18, 2011 by telescoper

In a rare moment of wakefulness during yesterday’s Board of Studies, I listened to a report from our departmental admissions tutor about the state of play with applications for entry onto our physics courses next year. It was good news – applications are up more than 50% on last year – but this was tempered by the fact that our quota has gone down slightly, owing to the presence of a cap on student numbers. I’m not sure whether the increase, perhaps caused by students trying to get into university before the fee  goes up to £9K, is echoed around the country, but it seems likely that competition for places will be intense this year, with the almost certain result that many students  will be disappointed at being unable to get into their first choice university.

Coincidentally, I noticed a story on the BBC at the weekend suggesting that the whole timetable of university admissions might change. What the government is planning remains to be seen, but there’s no doubting the system is far from perfect and if we had the opportunity to design a process for university admissions from scratch, there is no way on Earth we would end up with a system like the current one.

As things stand, students apply for university places through UCAS before they have their final A-level results (which don’t come out until July). Most applications are in by January of the year of intended admission, in fact. The business of selecting candidates and making offers therefore makes use of “predicted grades” as supplied by teachers of the applicant.

According to the BBC news

..under the current system those from poorer backgrounds typically have their grades under-predicted.

I simply don’t know whether there is any information to back this up – in my (limited) experience most teachers systematically overestimate the grades of their pupils – but if it is the case then it would be a good reason for changing the timetable so that potential students could apply once they have their results in the bag. They can do that now, of course, but only if they take a gap-year, applying for admission the year after they have their A-levels.

But the inaccuracy of predicted A-level grades is not the only absurdity in the current system. Universities such as Cardiff, where I work, have to engage in enormous amounts of guesswork during the admissions process. Suppose a department has a quota of 100, defining the target number students to take in. They might reasonably get a minimum of 500 applications for these 100 places, depending on the popularity of university and course.

Each student is allowed to apply to 5 different institutions. If a decision is made to make an offer of a place, it would normally be conditional on particular A-level grades (e.g. AAB). At the end of the process the student is expected to pick a first choice (CF) and an insurance choice (CI) out of the offers they receive. They will be expected to go to their first choice if they get the required grades, to the insurance choice if they don’t make it into the first choice but get grades sufficient for the reserve. If they don’t make either grade they have to go into the clearing system and take pot luck among those universities that have places free after all the CFs and CIs have been settled.

Each university department has to decide how many offers to make. This will always be larger than the number of places, because not all applicants will make an offer their CF. We have to honour all offers made, but there are severe penalties if we under or over recruit. How many offers to make then? What fraction of students with an offer will put us first? What fraction of them will actually get the required grade?

The answers to these questions are not at all obvious, so the whole system runs on huge levels of uncertainty. I’m amazed that each year we manage to get anywhere close to the correct number, and we usually get very close indeed by the end.

It’s a very skilled job, being an admissions tutor, but there’s no question it would all be fairer on both applicants and departments to remove most of the guesswork.

But there is the rub. There are only two ways I can see of changing the timetable to allow what the government seems to want to do:

  1. Have the final A-level examinations earlier
  2. Start the university academic year later

The unavoidable consequence of the first option would be the removal of large quantities of material from the A-level syllabus so the exams could be held several months earlier, which would be a disaster in terms of preparing students for university.

The second option would mean starting the academic year in, say, January instead of October. This would in my opinion be preferable to 1, but would still be difficult because it would interfere with all the other things a university does as well as teaching, especially research.  The summer recess (July-September), wherein  much research is currently done, could be changed to an autumn one (October-December) but there would be a great deal of resistance, especially from the older establishments; I can’t see Oxbridge being willing to abandon its definitions of teaching term! And what would the students do between July and January?

The apply-after-A-level idea has been floated before, about a decade ago, but it sank without trace. I wonder if it will do any better this time around?


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