What does the Journey to a Million mean for a more competitive admissions landscape?

Mike Nicholson, Director of Recruitment, Admissions and Participation, University of Cambridge.
As applications to UK higher education continue to steadily increase over the coming admissions cycles we can expect to see increased media and political focus on the success (or otherwise) of particular cohorts within the UK and international student population in securing offers. A taste of what is to come can be seen in media coverage in the summer of 2022, with awareness of the tightening of offer-making and the consequential increased competition for places.

The capacity conundrum

Universities have very limited controls at their disposal to manage their numbers. They can raise their entry grades (but this ideally needs to be signalled well in advance to potential applicants), require highly specific subject requirements (for example, insisting that all offer holders have to achieve an A* grade in Chemistry at A-level), sift candidates through use of admissions assessments, or require candidates to be interviewed or auditioned. All of these interventions require significant investment of time and resource, and many require several years to develop as an effective selection tool. The only short-term response is to limit the number of offers, which can carry reputational risks, particularly if it results in significant numbers of applicants not securing an offer of admission, but the closer we get to 2030, the less time there will be to develop the other alternatives. Even where controlling the number of offers is a viable proposition, there will be an increasing need for clarity and transparency in the way that offer-making decisions are made and justified if confidence in the fairness of admissions processes is to be maintained. The recent refresh of the Fair Admissions code of practice by Universities UK is a clear indication of a wish for the sector to get on the front-foot, and head off any specific legislative interventions by governments or regulatory oversight bodies, such as the Office for Students in England.

A system based on predicted academic performance and teacher references also needs to have some assurance that the likely distribution of final grades achieved by applicants will have some stability; this proved one of the greatest challenges in managing applicant intakes during the period of the pandemic, and it could take until the 2025 intake before we see a full return to the stability in student performance that was a feature of the pre-pandemic exam system, as each of the devolved nations take slightly different approaches to managing grading of post-16 qualifications. 

Creating transparency

Where does this leave potential applicants and those who will be advising them in their course and university choices? 

Firstly, it requires candidates to fully research and understand the expectations and requirements that are being asked of them if they are to secure an offer. In return higher education will need to provide transparent and clear information on their expectations, as well as support the development of resources that assist candidates in understanding the level of competition and profiles of successful candidates in previous offer cycles.

Candidates will need to also determine how best to use the choices at their disposal. Those who opt to cluster all their options around a narrow range of highly competitive and selective courses and universities are unlikely to receive many offers. This also however requires universities to be honest and open in setting their entry requirements and selection criteria. It is in no-one’s interests for large numbers of candidates to waste applications for courses where they are not remotely qualified to secure a place.

A return to Student Number Controls?

And what does the future hold? One potential intervention by Government that would significantly add pressure on the admissions system would be the re-imposition of Student Number Controls in those nations or subjects where there are currently only institution-imposed limits on the number of students who can be admitted. Challenging economic circumstances will put additional pressure on the public purse, and is only really a valid option if alternatives to the traditional full-time undergraduate degree are widely available. Whilst here has been a steady growth in the number of apprenticeship opportunities in the last year (after very limited development in 2020 and 2021) they still remain heavily concentrated in London and South East England, with some professions and industries having very limited provision.i  

Innovative admissions practices and AI

A more radical solution would be to adopt the widespread use of AI systems to read and determine outcomes for university admissions. This already is a feature of a growing number of North American applicant enrolment processes, but it will likely require heavy investment within UK universities to implement effectively, and have to overcome any prejudice that outcomes for university should be determined by an algorithm, a concept that will be difficult to progress whilst memories of the 2020 UK examination series remain in the public consciousness. 

Streamlining student choices

Finally, there may be elements of the existing admissions process that could be adjusted to manage the volume of applications an individual university or course would receive. The current UCAS process allows candidates five choices; a reduction to four would immediately alter the volume that most universities would then have to consider, and potentially allow admissions staff more opportunity to focus on those who are at the border for receipt of an offer. Over the thirty years that I have been involved in admissions work, applicants have had as many as nine choices (the year that UCCA and PCAS merged); five is a fairly arbitrary number. A reduction in current choices would need to align with applicants having access to very good advice and guidance support, universities providing clear and transparent information, and scope to provide an extended UCAS Extra operation to ensure that those holding no offers from their original four choices could seek out additional opportunities. This sort of intervention needs to be carefully modelled and tested, to ensure there are no unintended consequences, and would require extensive consultation with the full range of stakeholders before any implementation. Changes will be required however, particularly as any post-qualification process is proving very difficult to implement without significant changes in the timing of school and university years alongside different timescales and approaches for assessing candidate performance prior to entering higher education.

Whatever the final outcome, it is clear that there will need to be proactive engagement by all stakeholders in the next 2-3 years, to avoid the application process grinding to a halt as universities struggle to make offer decisions in the available timescale.

iFor those interested in seeing the detail, Alan Bullock’s regular blog updating the development of degree and modern apprenticeship opportunities since March 2020 makes compelling reading: Alan Bullock Careers Blog. Accessed January 25th, 2023.

Mike Nicholson

Director of Recruitment, Admissions and Participation, University of Cambridge

Mike joined the University of Cambridge in October 2021, having previously worked as Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach at the University of Bath (2014-21) and University of Oxford (2006-2014), and Head of Undergraduate Admissions and Student Recruitment at the University of Essex (1998-2006).  

He is Vice Chair of the UCAS Council, the stakeholder advisory group that advises the UCAS Trustee Board on sector issues. He is also a Trustee of the Council of International Schools and AQA. He has recently joined the Sutton Trust’s Education Advisory Board, and the Rethinking Assessment Advisory Board.