June 2011


  • Fledge funds?
    When budgets are squeezed, schools and colleges need to drum up new sources of income. And, like any management task, it requires a properly thought-out plan of attack. Val Andrew offers some ideas. More
  • The generation game
    From carpentry and childcare to hosting conferences and opening a professional gym, schools and colleges are finding imaginative ways to generate new income. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
  • Brave admissions
    UCAS boss Mary Curnock Cook is leading an overhaul of the 50 year old university admissions system, tackling some of the problems previously labelled 'too difficult' to address. She talks to Liz Lightfoot. More
  • Taking up the challenge
    If you decide to challenge an Ofsted decision, what can you expect? Jan Webber explains the dispute process and looks at the case of one institution which refused to accept an inaccurate report. More
  • Hives of activity
    Co-operative schools, with their emphasis on work ethic, self-help and social responsibility, are booming. Dorothy Lepkowska explores what makes them tick and looks at plans for the first co-op academy. More
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UCAS boss Mary Curnock Cook is leading an overhaul of the 50 year old university admissions system, tackling some of the problems previously labelled 'too difficult' to address. She talks to Liz Lightfoot.

Brave admissions

Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), is at her desk in the large open plan office overlooking Cheltenham Racecourse.

One of the first things she did on her arrival last year was to order the builders to tear down the walls of the executive office. She’s clearly a woman who does not need her status to be enshrined in a glass box.

As a new broom at UCAS, straight from the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) where she was the director of qualifications and skills, she has opened the lid on ticklish issues that have been around for decades. A major review of the admissions system has been put in train and the new chief executive wants to delve into what she calls "the too difficult to handle box".

Mary did not go to university, using her A levels to land a job as a secretary at the University of Cambridge, which is how she can, unnervingly, read shorthand upside down. She regrets missing out on higher education in her teens but later gained an MSc in general management from the London Business School.

She has no shortage of personal experience of universities, however, through her son and two daughters. "I speak to quite a lot of young people as part of my job, and as a parent of three have a swirl of university age people around my house.

"A lot of them are struggling through the last year or two of their degrees on subjects they perhaps wouldn’t have chosen if they had known and thought more about it."

Her oldest child was in her second term of a biology degree when she decided to leave and get a job.

"Like many young people she found herself in a sausage machine where she did her best GCSEs for A level and her best A level at university. She was loving university life but in term two she asked herself why she was spending three years doing biology. She took what I think was a courageous decision to call a halt and rethink her future," she says.

Inadequate careers advice

Her younger daughter has decided to take a gap year and apply in 2012. She is looking at subjects she has not studied at school but it is a bit "hit and miss".

"I am encouraging her to research the subject and read about it so she really understands what she is getting into. Sometimes young people take these decisions too lightly."

Part of the problem is an inadequate careers service. "I don't understand what the 'all age careers service' is or isn't," she says of the scheme proposed by government. "I am quite worried about what appears to be a lack of any kind of regional co-ordination or quality control of careers advice.

"We are investing in our online tools and get a huge amount of traffic to our course search. But young people tell us that face-to-face advice from a trusted adult is hugely important and influential."

UCAS is looking at ways of providing universities with the opportunity to give more detailed information about subjects and to reach out to individual students.

"I am quite interested, in the current environment of access agreements, in making it possible for institutions to encourage applications from certain students.

"Recruitment has changed over the last few years and a lot of websites offer employers the opportunity to specify what kind of skills and qualifications they need and to target applicants. We could look at some quite clever possibilities in these areas.

"A university could say it is looking for people with these subjects and these grades and those who have an interest in a particular subject or who want to come to a particular region. You could make it possible for institutions to reach out much more."

Data on schools

From September UCAS will be providing all universities with information about school and college performance that they can use as contextual information about applicants. It is a basket of data that higher education institutions have decided they would like to have. What each institution decides to do with the information is up to them, Mary says.

The UCAS form is also to be redesigned with more drop-down options and guidance on writing personal statements and references.

"When I go out and talk to admissions officers I get a lot of feedback about the variability in the quality of references. I hear from some of them that teachers spend far too much time giving the contextual data which they get anyway.

"A lot of admissions officers say it is very common for teachers to say 'this is the best student I have seen in such and such a subject in my 20 year career' and they say it so many times that it is blatantly not true.

"I think we could be a bit more prescriptive about what is required and how teachers can optimise the candidate’s chances of getting a good match between their aptitudes and abilities and the course they want to do."

Fees debate

And what about fees? Is the chief executive of UCAS happy about her daughter facing debts of £40,000-plus on graduation? While she agrees that the increase from £3,000 to a maximum of £9,000 sounds massive, she asserts that the arrangements for paying it back over 30 years mean that some graduates will actually be paying less weekly or monthly than under the current regime.

"It is really important that advisers and applicants know that whether you choose a course that costs £6,000 or £9,000 the amount you will pay back each week will be the same. It might mean paying back for a year or two longer at the other end if you choose a course costing £9,000, but by that time a lot of water will have passed under the bridge."

Admissions changes

Possibly the hottest issue being taken out of the box for the review is a post-qualification admissions system to allow students to apply to university on the basis of actual rather than predicted results.

Much of the debate has been about the practicalities of squeezing applications between results day and the start of the university term.

"In the end it has been easier to say we can’t do it because it has looked so difficult," she says.

"I am hoping our admissions review will show there are a number of ways you could do PQA. Then, when the process issues are taken off the table, people could decide whether they really want it from an educational and admissions point of view."

Universities are also finding it more difficult to manage their numbers because applicants are using their "insurance" offer as an alternative.

"We find that 42 per cent of applicants have an insurance choice that is harder or equal because they are not willing to compromise. For them it is a second option.

"If this is what people want to use it for, then I think we should design a process that gives them that option rather than using one that was designed for a different purpose and works imperfectly for institutions contractually obliged to honour the offers," she says.

UCAS has good relations with the government but it is not controlled by it, she says. The admissions service is owned by universities and colleges and they are willing to consider radical changes to update the system.

How much upheaval they will accept to a process which has been running without major mishap for half a century, only time will tell.

  • Liz Lightfoot is a freelance educational journalist.

Mary Curnock Cook