Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 29

Submission from the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA) Programme



    — The SPA Programme leads on fair, professional good practice in admissions and works with higher education providers to enhance their practice, and to recommend they produce clear admissions policies which are transparent to applicants and their advisors.— The applicant experience underpins the fairness agenda, and SPA is raising awareness in institutions for a strategic approach to proving a good service for applicants.— The Schwartz Report Review, December 2008, highlights the progress made on fair admissions in higher education.— SPA continues to work on admissions tests and the need for institutions to be transparent as to how they use tests as part of admissions decision-making.

    — Improvements made by the HE sector led Delivery Partnership include the work of SPA on feedback to unsuccessful applicants and the development of more and better Entry Profiles.

    — All staff involved in admissions, both academic and administrative need to be trained and have professional development opportunities.

    — Progression to higher education relies on good information, advice and guidance for applicants and the use of contextual data as part of holistic assessment.

    — There is already a huge amount of partnership working by higher education institutions with schools and colleges throughout the UK, but devolution and the impact of legislation is making admissions more complex.

1.  The effectiveness of the process for admission to Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) including admissions tests

  1.1  The admissions to higher education process is the responsibility of each individual university and college of higher education as independent bodies, as laid down within the Higher Education Act 2004 for England and Wales, the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 2005, with similar legislation for Northern Ireland. The Admissions to Higher Education Steering Group's (Schwartz) Report Fair Admissions to Higher Education: Recommendations for Good Practice, 2004, acknowledged that institutions should be able to set their own criteria, choose their own assessment methods, and select their own students. However, it recognised it was important that everyone has confidence in the integrity of the admissions process, and access to higher education matters to many people, as does fair admissions.

1.2  One recommendation from the Schwartz Report was the need for a central source of expertise and advice on admissions issues for higher education provider institution (universities, colleges of higher education and further education colleges offering higher education programmes). The Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA) Programme was established in May 2006 to lead on the development of fair admissions, providing an evidence base and guidelines for good practice and in helping universities and colleges maintain and enhance excellence and professionalism in admissions, student recruitment and widening participation across the HE sector. SPA is a small independent programme, funded by all UK HE funding councils until 2011 and works throughout the UK to support institutions to review their policies and procedures to make them more transparent; to use fair methods that are open and accountable via internal monitoring and evaluation structures and are undertaken and managed by professional staff, whether they be academic or administrators. SPA is increasingly having an impact on the professionalism of admissions within HEIs, as has been borne out through the work of the Programme's external evaluator. Over the next three years SPA will focus more on working with senior management teams within institutions on topics concerning modernising admissions and the associated good practice.

  1.3  As institutions are responsible for their own admissions policy and procedures there is a diversity of approaches in this area which reflect institutions' missions and teaching and learning strategies, processing may be centralised or decentralised, and there is also diversity in the range of applicants applying. In assessing applicants' ability, motivation and potential to succeed in higher education the majority of courses at the majority of institutions will make decisions for full-time undergraduate courses on the basis of the UCAS application, and offers will be made to all those who meet the entry requirements. Only at a small number of institutions (and even within these institutions often only for some courses) where there are many well qualified applicants, may admissions decision-makers use additional factors as part of the decision-making process. The range of information they use will depend on the level of competition for, and type of, course the student applies for and the demands of the course. It could include the use of interviews, auditions, material evidence or portfolios, school performance, admissions tests, assessment of prior experiential learning, and other relevant factors in the applicant's background as part of holistic assessment of the individual applicant.

  1.4  In addition to full-time undergraduates HEIs also consider and admit applicants to part-time courses, postgraduate taught and research courses, applicants studying at the institution or at a distance, such as work based learners. The type of students applying therefore also vary, they maybe 17 or 18 year olds, mature students, those with no qualifications considered on the basis of assessed experiential learning, those with disabilities, care leavers, those with little or no experience of higher education in their family and many others. HEIs have policies and procedures to cover the types of courses and students they consider to ensure decisions are made fairly and consistently.

  1.5  SPA believes that "the applicant experience" and institutions' customer service and support plays a role here. There has been much progress on what makes a good student experience within HEIs, but the front end of that debate, the applicant and their experience of the institution they apply to is the start of the student journey. This underpins fair admissions practice—and is central to ensuring applicants have the information they need to make their applications and make the right choices for them and that institutions get the applicants they want. SPA is starting to explore these issues and their implications and has identified four stages:

    — Pre-application

    — Application

    — Post-application (Offer making and relationship building; Reject and applicant feedback)

    — Transition.

SPA is working on good practice and raising awareness of the need for institutions to have an integrated approach to the applicant experience and is disseminating this information via conferences and events. The applicant experience is the first part of strategic enrolment management that some institutions have introduced. Other work undertaken in this area includes the QAA Enhancement Themes in Scotland, which looked at transition and the first year experience.

1.6  Schwartz Report Review 2008

    (a) The Schwartz Report Review, which examined the implementation by universities and colleges of the principles of fair admissions outlined in the Schwartz Report 2004, was undertaken in 2008 and published on 10 December 2008. This review was commissioned by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) in response to the Schwartz Report recommendation to Government, that a further review be undertaken after three years. The review was undertaken by a research team based at Sheffield Hallam University and managed by the SPA Programme. (b) The researchers found that a number of the principles in the Schwartz Report had been successfully adopted by the higher education sector, particularly in relation to the areas of transparency, staff training and continuing professional development, aspects of professionalism and the use of technology to share resources and information.

    (c) The Review Report highlights the positive changes that have taken place in admissions to higher education over the last three years, however there is more to be done to improve transparency of admissions policies and procedures for applicants and their advisors and SPA will work with institutions on this. The Review Report is on the SPA website:

1.7  Admissions tests

    (a) One of SPA's objectives has been to review the use of admissions tests by higher education institutions in the UK and in particular issues related to the validity and rationale underlying the use of tests and the need to be transparent about how test results are used to add value to the admissions decision-making process. SPA made a written submission to the Education and Skills Select Committee Inquiry into Testing and Assessment in June 2007, and this document and background to the work of SPA in this area is on the SPA website at In 2008 SPA identified a total of 67 tests in use in the UK. This is an increase of ten on the 57 recorded in 2007—these are not new tests but are due to institutions' increased transparency regarding their use of tests as part of the admissions process. SPA has demonstrated that admissions tests are not a big part of HE sector admissions decision-making. Tests are used by about 0.7% of the 49,000 courses in the UCAS scheme and by a small proportion of institutions (about 16% of the 309 HE providers in the UCAS scheme for 2009 entry).

    (c) SPA issued two good practice briefings highlighting some of the issues around tests in December 2008. One was for schools and colleges, the other for HEIs.

    (d) It is important to note that admissions tests, where used, only form part of the admissions decision-making process as they provide only one piece of information about an applicant. Details of the tests and the briefing documents can be found on the SPA website at

1.8  HE sector led Delivery Partnership.

    (a) The HE sector led Delivery Partnership was set up in 2006 to take forward a number of reforms to the current applications system arising from the Government recommendations for improving the HE applications process. These changes were aimed at improving the transparency, efficiency and effectiveness of the current process for both applicants and HEIs. (b) Feedback to unsuccessful applicants on request. SPA and UCAS have been instrumental in supporting HEIs in taking forward the work on feedback to unsuccessful applicants and the development of more and better quality Entry Profiles (EPs). The Delivery Partnership has agreed that enhanced feedback, together with an increasing number of clear and transparent EPs developed by HEIs for applicants on UCAS Course Search, should go a long way towards changing any perceptions of unfairness in admissions by some stakeholder groups.

    (c) Entry Profiles give applicants more information about the course entry qualifications/ levels and required criteria such as personal skills and qualities, relevant work experience, motivation, audition, interview or admissions tests. EPs are web-based, written by universities and colleges, located in UCAS Course Search. EPs help match applicant's pre-HE study with the HE courses, and help applicants to tailor post-16 study more precisely to HE needs. There is evidence now that applicants are more likely to apply for a course with an EP than one without (UCAS August 2008). The Delivery Partnership set a target for 100% of courses to have EPs by September 2009, the current figure is just over 83%. SPA and UCAS are currently supporting HEIs to achieve this.

  The impact of the Delivery Partnership's work has overall had a positive effect on the admissions processes to higher education and these reforms will be evaluated in 2010-11.

1.9  Training and Professional Development

  All of the issues around admissions are underpinned by the need to ensure that all staff involved with admissions decision-making, student recruitment, schools and colleges liaison etc. are trained and have access to continuing professional development. This is particularly important in terms of interviews, and other assessment techniques requiring specific skills, in order to ensure reliability and fairness and in the light of the continuing increasingly complex nature of admissions decision-making.

1.10  The use of electronic information

    (a) The effectiveness of the process for admission is supported by the increasing use of electronic information exchange. For example the move to paperless applications through UCAS or at least "paperlite" processes, 99.9% of UCAS applications are now sent to HEIs electronically, but in the majority of cases a printed paper form is also still sent. There are good examples of institutions where limited use of paper for admissions has been introduced and is successful. (b) Increased use of electronic information is developing rapidly, for example the importance of HEI websites; admissions and student record systems and the move to web based xml-links with UCAS etc. allow greater flexibility in information and systems available to HEIs. The potential for UCAS Apply to be tailored to individual HEI needs is becoming a reality.

    (c) Using their own institution data and statistics obtained via UCAS, HESA and other sources as well as national data provide rich sources of information for institutions to inform their widening participation, marketing, targeting, recruitment, tracking, monitoring and evaluation of admissions policies. This includes the Unistats website (previously TQI) which includes the National Student Survey results with more links being made from this site to UCAS Course Search.

2.  The role of the Government in developing and promoting fair access and admissions policies for the UK Higher Education sector

  2.1  Admissions Policies As referenced in paragraph 1.1 above, admissions are the responsibility of universities and colleges themselves. SPA was established to work with HEIs to develop and share good practice and HEIs must publish admissions policies for applicants and equip all in admissions to implement policy consistently. SPA is aware from its visits to HE providers and its research on websites etc. that generally HEIs publish their admissions policies, however, the level of detail tends to vary. SPA is currently working on guidance to support HEIs in further developing their good practice and in reviewing, and publishing a transparent and fair admissions policy. These policies may include the use of additional or contextual factors; a wider range of qualifications at level 3 as part of holistic admissions decision-making; and publication of information for applicants about local and regional partnership arrangements, compacts, progression agreements etc.

2.2  Monitoring and evaluation of policies in admissions, and the practices involved in admissions decision-making via internal admissions, teaching and learning or other committees is an important part of quality assurance and accountability of the admissions policies and procedures within institutions. Institutions need to ensure they know that policies are understood and are being followed and monitored. This should also be covered through the institution's adherence to the precepts within the Quality Assurance Agency's (QAA) Code of Practice on admissions to HE (2006).

2.3  Widening Participation Strategic Assessments (England)

  SPA, alongside Universities UK, GuildHE and other stakeholders has been involved in discussions with HEFCE and OFFA with regards to bringing together an institution's access agreement, widening participation strategy together with a high level statement on admissions. HEFCE guidance for institutions on these Widening Participation Strategic Assessments will be issued in January 2009.

2.4  National Council for Educational Excellence (NCEE) Recommendations

    (a) Highlights from the NCEE HE strand which impact on admissions include the need for more and better information, advice and guidance (IAG) in schools and colleges. This refers to IAG in relation to subject choices and progression routes to HE as part of the applicant experience. It will be important for HEIs to be involved in discussions with DCSF/DIUS on taking this forward and with all the UK administrations, given IAG with regard to progression to higher education is a UK wide issue. (b) HEIs are also recommended to use more information to select applicants including additional and contextual data. SPA has worked with UCAS on the complex and sometimes controversial issues surrounding the use of different types of contextual data. Currently many institutions use contextual data for monitoring purposes after the applicant has been admitted, and some admissions staff use contextual data as part of the decision-making process. In taking this recommendation forward there are a number of issues that HEIs will need to consider such as ensuring fairness and equity to all applicants, that the data used is reliable and valid and that admissions staff are trained in how to interpret and use the data. SPA will continue to develop these points of principle to support institutions in their decision-making process.

3.  Issues around widening participation in higher education

  3.1  The Schwartz Report highlighted that generally there was no evidence of bias against students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds or from particular schools and colleges (Schwartz Report 2004, Section C1, page 8) and that it was the differential rates of application rather than bias in admissions procedures that was the main cause of under-representation of disadvantaged groups at some institutions. More recently this has been reinforced by research undertaken in 2008 by the Sutton Trust for the NCEE which reported that the main cause of low representation in higher education by certain groups was most likely due to poor prior attainment and lower aspirations before the age of 16.

3.2  This needs to be addressed by HEIs working with schools and colleges and a great deal of good practice in these areas can be evidenced by what HEIs are achieving through Aimhigher and the Lifelong Learning Networks in England, though Reaching Higher in Wales and Learning for All in Scotland. HEIs have many ways in which they are already working together to raise aspiration and academic attainment amongst young people resulting in increasing the participation in higher education. The compact agreements with schools and colleges that many HEIs have and the progression agreements with colleges through the Lifelong Learning Networks in England have already shown what can be achieved by HEIs working in partnership with schools and colleges. These go much further than "fair access" which is sometimes narrowly defined in terms of getting more applicants from poorer backgrounds in to certain universities, rather than addressing the much larger number of students with level 3 qualifications who never progress to higher education. Recently 13 universities agreed to start work on sharing how they can recognise each others compact arrangements and this is a welcome development.

  3.3  Detailed case studies of a number of compact agreements which highlighted a number of good practices were published by HEFCE in September 2008. The purpose of this report was to provide information about compact schemes, raise awareness of them across the sector, show how they contributed to outreach and recruitment activities, and set out some key principles for their use and further development. It was published as an HEFCE issues paper September 2008/32 and can be seen at

4.  Impact of Devolution

  SPA, UCAS and UUK are UK wide, but an increasing number of initiatives and developments are going forward that are "administration specific" further complicating the admissions scene for applicants and universities which recruit UK wide. The increasingly different requirements, aspirations and priorities of the four different administrations of the UK, and the impact of initiatives implemented by them on cross border applications make this ever more complex. These issues include student finance—tuition fees and bursaries, application numbers and demographics, changes in the 14-19 curriculum, differences in the emphasis within widening access/widening participation work and in the role of FE and skills.

5.  The impact of legislation

The complexities around the different aspects of legislation and administrative processes in public life make the admissions process more complex. This includes equality and diversity, safeguarding and child protection, contract law around offer making, the new processes regarding criminal record checks etc., which again may differ in the devolved administrations.

December 2008

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 2 August 2009