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Is UCAS fit for purpose?

  • 30 January 2019
  • By Dean Machin

This guest blog has been kindly contributed by Dean Machin, who is the Strategic Policy Adviser at the University of Portsmouth. In 2015, he wrote a report for the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission on data-sharing entitled ‘Data and public policy: trying to make social progress blindfolded’.

Tomorrow, UCAS – the university admissions service – will publish a detailed breakdown of universities’ unconditional offer data. By how much has unconditional offer-making increased? These data could usefully inform an often evidence-free debate.

Traditionally, UCAS has been reluctant to publish much of its data or share the numbers with researchers – as I found when I wrote a report in 2015 for the Social Mobility Commission on data sharing. UCAS tends to cite data protection issues or universities’ commercial confidentiality concerns. But perhaps this week’s release suggests a change of policy. If so, it should be welcomed.

UCAS is a veritable treasure trove for prospective university students and researchers. It knows what grades students actually require to get on to courses at different universities. Being armed with information about whether you really need get the three As the prospectus states, or how often in the past ABB has been enough will help students make more-informed choices. We might also expect league tables to change if they included actual entry requirements rather than officially-stated entry requirements. 

In terms of research, in 2013 Vikki Boliver, Professor of Sociology at Durham University, discovered that BME and state school students must significantly out-perform their comparator groups before they become just as likely to receive an offer from a Russell Group university. Her research was only possible because she had access to UCAS data.

But there is a complicating factor. There is now a market in higher education. Universities compete against each other for students. One of the duties of the new Office for Students (OfS) is to encourage competition between providers for the benefits of student choice and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is taking an interest in what universities say about themselves. Only last week the OfS raised the spectre that the use of unconditional offers by some universities could be in breach of consumer law. 

UCAS controls a lot of what is now market-sensitivedata. Decisions about which data it will publish, which data it will not, and when it will publish that data can be expected to have market effects which may distort competition between universities. This is completely new territory and creates a potential minefield for UCAS. 

UCAS is a sector-governed body; its Board of twelve include six current Vice-Chancellors. The chair of UCAS is a Vice Chancellor nominated by Universities UK. There are no student representatives on the Board.”

Times were very different when UCAS was created (as UCCA) in 1961 and when it became UCAS (in 1993). The possibility that UCAS would come to control – and so must take responsibility for the release of – market-sensitive data was simply not an issue.

One does not need much imagination to think that a sector-controlled body founded before there was a higher education market may not be fit for purpose in the new environment. UCAS should be expected to release enough of the information it controls to better inform student choices as well as public policy research. 

UCAS’s record suggests that it prefers not to publish much institution-level data. The release of unconditional offers data is only occurring because UCAS has come under pressure from the Government and the media. Even if this data release indicates a change of culture, it is unclear that a sector-controlled body will be able to put aside short-term sector interests in deciding what information to release. As Vikki Boliver’s research shows, UCAS data can yield uncomfortable conclusions for universities. 

It would be illuminating to hear the OfS’s and CMA’s views on whether a sector-governed body controlling so much market-sensitive data can be expected to benefit students and public policy. There  must now be clear guidance from either body so that students do not have to accept a piecemeal approach to data release that may not inform them sufficiently and may lead to distorted choices in the emerging higher education market.

None of this is UCAS’s fault – the idea of a higher education market is relatively new – but it does highlight one of the many new problems caused by the increased marketization of universities that we should be striving to solve. 

1 comment

  1. Paul Ashby says:

    “We might also expect league tables to change if they included actual entry requirements rather than officially-stated entry requirements. ”

    It’s many years since league tables used officially-stated entry requirements. They use entrants’ actual tariff, as reported to HESA. Which is probably more of a brake on institutions’ appetite for radical WP initiatives than if they DID still use published requirements, to be honest.

    UCAS now provide far more detailed data than they ever have, through their EXACT service – something like 120 variables are available. However, it can be eye-wateringly expensive.

    It’s also of note that while they have greatly expanded the range of data they are willing to provide (sell), they have removed a few useful datasets that used to be free ‘behind the paywall’, so to speak.

    It’s a great disappointment that UCAS removed their data from HESA’s Heidi portal just as it transformed into Heidi+, which is an absolute boon for the use of HESA data.

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