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Higher-education application processing
|£33 million (2011)|
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS //) is a UK-based organisation whose main role is to operate the application process for British universities. It operates as an independent charity, funded by fees charged to applicants and to universities, plus advertising income, and was formed in 1992 through the merger of the former university admissions system UCCA and the former polytechnics admissions system PCAS.
Services provided by UCAS include several online application portals, a number of search tools and free information and advice directed at various audiences, including students considering higher education, students with pending applications to higher education institutes, parents and legal guardians of applicants, school and further education college staff involved in helping students apply and providers of higher education (universities and HE colleges).
While UCAS is best known for its undergraduate application service (the main UCAS scheme), it also operates a number of other admissions services:
- UCAS Conservatoires - application and search service for performing arts at a UK conservatoire
- UCAS Teacher Training (UTT) – for postgraduate teacher training schemes
- UCAS Postgraduate – application and search facility for some postgraduate courses
UCAS is based near Marle Hill in Cheltenham at the junction of the B4075 (New Barn Lane) and the A435 (Evesham Road), near Cheltenham Racecourse and a park and ride. It is situated just inside the parish of Prestbury, Gloucestershire.
UCAS was formed in 1992 by the merger of Universities Central Council on Admissions (UCCA) and Polytechnics Central Admissions System (PCAS) and the name UCAS is a contraction of the former acronyms UCCA and PCAS. An early proposal was made for the new merged body to be called PUCCA (Polytechnics and Universities Central Council on Admissions), but this was never adopted.
UCCA was the older of the two bodies, having been formed in 1961 to provide a clearing house for university applications in the United Kingdom. It was created in response to concerns during the 1950s that the increase in University applications was unmanageable using the systems then in place, where each student applied individually to as many institutions as they chose. This concern led to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) setting up an ad hoc committee in 1957 to review the matter; this committee in its Third Report of January 1961 recommended the setting up of a central agency, which subsequently became known as UCCA. Its First and Second Reports had already made a number of recommendations aimed at harmonising admissions procedures across different universities.
The name UCCA referred originally to the management board (the Central Council) overseeing the new process, but soon came to refer to the organisation responsible for its day-to-day operation. This was based initially in London, and moved to Cheltenham, Gloucestershire in 1968. The new scheme had a pilot year handling a subset of applications for entry in 1963, and its first full year of operation handled admissions for 1964.
The scheme was essentially a collaborative venture between independent universities, and membership was voluntary. Most English universities joined from the start. Oxford and Cambridge joined (with slightly modified procedures) for the 1966 entry; the London medical and dental schools, as well as Belfast and Stirling for 1967. In 1965 UCCA handled 80,033 applicants, rising to 114,289 in 1969. The acceptance rate of UCCA applicants by universities in 1969 stood at just over 50%.
Initially, processing of applications was carried out using punched card technology. In 1964, UCCA started using the services of a computer bureau with a Univac machine; in 1967 it installed its own Univac computer.
Although the polytechnics were degree-teaching institutions, through the CNAA awards system, they were not eligible for admission to UCCA as it was reserved only for universities with degree awarding powers. Despite this the Polytechnics were involved as early as 1972 in discussions with UCCA and the Central Register and Clearing House about the possible future shape of one or more admissions systems. At this stage applicants dealt directly with each individual polytechnic and the polytechnics themselves were strongly regional or local in their appeal. A study in 1977 found that between sixty and seventy per cent of those admitted to a polytechnic had applied to that institution only, and that forty per cent of admissions to polytechnics resulted from applications made in August or September of the year of entry.
In 1983 the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics began negotiations with UCCA to share its computing, technical and office facilities in Cheltenham to establish a course entrance system, based on the existing model used by UCCA. A grant of £210,000, from the British Department for Education and Science, was awarded to set up a new unified admissions system, provisionally called PUCCA. However, instead of a unified system for both the universities and polytechnics a separate system for polytechnics emerged from the negotiations, modelled on UCCA, but known as PCAS. Applicants to courses were given the option to apply separately for universities or polytechnics, or for both.
The PCAS system came into effect in 1985. It was led by its first Chief Executive, Tony Higgins, and in the first year it handled around 140,000 applications to polytechnic courses, of whom 40,000 a year went on to study at polytechnics.
Although many polytechnics offered art and design programmes, and some also offered teacher training courses, these admissions systems remained outside PCAS. Art and Design admissions worked to a later timetable as a result of the role Art Foundation courses had in developing a student's proposed specialism (painting, sculpture, graphic design and so on). Work was furthermore generally submitted before a decision was made on whether to interview. However means of absorbing the Art and Design Admissions Registry into UCAS were found by 1996.
Although the aim to create a fully unified application system for universities and polytechnics was not achieved until 1994, from the 80's onwards Tony Higgins, the Chief Executive of PCAS, continued to push for the merger of PCAS with UCCA. In 1992, following the change of status and name of most polytechnics to universities, the two bodies combined under Higgins's leadership. Initially the application form was branded jointly UCCA/PCAS, but in 1994 the new merged body was officially renamed UCAS.
Undergraduate admissions schemes
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Main undergraduate scheme
Since the vast majority of UK universities and higher education colleges use the UCAS service, all students planning to study for an undergraduate degree in the UK must apply through UCAS – including home students and international students.
To apply to university, students must submit a single application via UCAS' online Apply service. The application itself requires the student to register to the service, giving a buzzword if applying through a centre, fill in personal details, write a personal statement and choose up to five courses to apply to, in no order of preference. They must then pay an application fee and obtain a reference before submitting their application online by the appropriate deadline. The application is then forwarded by UCAS to the universities and colleges that the students have applied to, who then decide whether to make students an offer of a place. Universities give students either an unconditional offer, where the student will receive a place regardless, or a conditional offer, where the student will receive a place subject to their grades being met. In certain circumstances, the University may withdraw the application before interviews, though this usually only occurs by some action on the applicants part (not replying to emails in time for example).
For applications to universities in the UK, entry requirements for individual courses can either be based on grades of qualifications (e.g. AAA at GCE A-Level, a score of 43/45 in the IB International Baccalaureate Diploma, or a music diploma) or in UCAS points (e.g. 300 UCAS points from 3 A-Levels or an IB score equal to 676 UCAS points). To convert individual scores or grades of specific qualifications into UCAS points, UCAS has created tariff tables indicating indexes and ratios of UCAS points and results of qualifications. For example, an A* at A-level is worth 56 UCAS points, an A 48, a B 40 and so on. For the IB, a score of 45 equals 720 UCAS points, a score of 40 is 611 points, a score of 35 is 501 etc.
Once logged into "Apply", applicants complete a number of personal details – including their current qualifications, employment and criminal history, national identity, ethnic origin and student finance arrangements. Applicants also have the option to declare if they have any individual needs – such as any disabilities; or if they are a care leaver.
The personal statement is an integral part of the application. It gives candidates a chance to write about their achievements, their interest in the subject they are applying for, as well as their suitability, interest, and commitment to higher education. Personal statements can contain a maximum of 4,000 characters (including spaces) or 47 lines – whichever comes first, with a maximum of 94 characters per line. A research study conducted by UCAS with over 300,000 personal statements of students revealed that the personal statement (among the student's grades) is the most important part within the application process.
Application fees and references
The final part of the process involves paying an application fee and obtaining a written reference. The process varies depending on whether a student is applying through a school, college or UCAS centre or as an individual.
For the former, applications are sent to the school, college or centre, who may ask applicants to pay their fee to them (which they then pass to UCAS) or pay UCAS directly, before they provide a reference and submit the form on the student's behalf. If applications are sent to the school, college or centre, then they will attach a reference to send to UCAS. Applicants are responsible for ensuring that their school, college or centre submits the application before the appropriate deadline for their courses.
Individual applicants should request their reference – from a teacher, adviser or professional who knows them – before paying the fee and submitting the form themselves.
For most current applications, the cost per student is £20 to apply for a single course, or £26 for two or more courses (as of 2021 entry).
Depending on the subject and on the university that they are applying for, candidates must submit their application by the relevant submission deadline to ensure their application is given equal consideration by the higher education providers they are applying to.
- 15 October deadline: Those applying for medicine, dentistry and veterinary science courses and anyone applying to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge must submit their UCAS applications by 15 October – in the year before the student wishes to start their studies.
- 15 January deadline: The majority of applications must be submitted by 15 January (in the calendar year that the student wishes to begin their studies).
- 24 March deadline: Some art and design courses have a later application deadline – 24 March – to give them time to complete their portfolios.
It is possible for students to submit applications up until 30 June each year; but a late submission may not be given the same consideration as those submitted before the deadline. Applications received after 30 June are placed directly into Clearing.
Students must adhere to their appropriate deadline for their course. Whilst UCAS advises universities and colleges to send their decisions by the end of March, the universities have the responsibility of responding to applicants and may operate in their own timescale. Many universities (like the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge) require that applicants come to an interview before offers are received; or they may be asked to submit an additional piece of work before receiving an offer.
Offers are made through the UCAS Track service by universities and are either unconditional or conditional, where the latter means that the student will receive a place dependent on exam performance. Applicants also find out if they have been rejected through UCAS Track.
Once an applicant has received a reply from their choices, they must reply to their university before the deadline in May. Applicants normally choose two offers through UCAS, one as their firm choice and one as their insurance choice. A firm choice means that, if the student receives their grades required, then the student will receive an unconditional offer. An insurance choice means that, if the firm choice university rejected them due to their grades, then the student will get into that university, if they have met the terms and conditions of the insurance choice's conditions.
If an applicant uses all of their five choices, and does not receive any offers, or they decide to decline the offers they receive, they can apply for additional courses using UCAS' Extra service. This allows them to keep applying, one course at a time, until they receive an offer they're happy with. Extra runs between mid-February and the end of June. If they don't get an offer during this time, they have the option to enter into Clearing when it opens in July.
Confirmation and clearing
When applicants receive their examination results, they will know if they have met the conditions of their firm and insurance choices. Universities give out unconditional offers and rejections when applicants receive their examination results.
Those that do have their offers confirmed are invited to accept a place on the course they applied to, which is called "confirmation". Many universities and colleges still accept students that narrowly miss their offer conditions.
Those that do not meet their "firm" and "insurance" offer conditions are eligible to use UCAS' Clearing service – which enables unplaced students to apply for courses with vacancies directly to the university. They do so by searching for an available course, using the UCAS search tool, and contacting each university or college concerned for a place.
Although clearing is most commonly used following results days in August, it opens at the start of July each year and closes in late September.
If applicants exceed the conditions of their firm offer, they have the option to search for a place at another university or college while retaining their original offer. This is known as "adjustment", a service which is available between A level results day and 31 August.
UCAS Conservatoires – performing arts scheme
UCAS operates Conservatoires UK Admissions Service (formally known as CUKAS) in conjunction with Conservatoires UK, managing applications for both undergraduate and postgraduate music, dance and drama courses at nine UK conservatoires:
- Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London
- Leeds College of Music
- Royal Academy of Music, London
- Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (part of Birmingham City University)
- Royal College of Music, London
- Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester
- Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow
- Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Cardiff
- Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London
Students must apply through the online CUKAS service by:
- 1 October – for most music courses
- 15 January – for most undergraduate dance, drama and screen production courses
UCAS postgraduate admissions schemes
UTT – postgraduate teacher training
UCAS Teacher Training (UTT) is an application service for postgraduates that want to become teachers. UTT replaced UCAS' previous GTTR teacher training application service and expanded its remit to provide centralised admissions for School Direct and school-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) programmes.
UTT programmes are either university/college-taught or school-based, and typically last for one academic year; usually leading to a PGCE qualification.
Students begin their application in the autumn for programmes starting in the following academic year. They start by using Apply 1 – which allows them to choose up to three programmes. Training providers then have 40 working days to make an offer. During this time they will invite candidates they're considering offering a place to for an interview. At the end of the 40-day period, students will have responses from their three choices and will have 10 working days to reply to any offers.
However, if students don't get offered a place using Apply 1, or they choose to decline all of the offers they receive, they can use Apply 2 to apply for new places, adding one choice at a time, until they receive an offer.
- Apply 1 opens on 21 November each year
- Apply 2 opens on 2 January each year
UCAS Postgraduate – postgraduate admissions scheme
UCAS Postgraduate (also known as UKPASS) is UCAS' postgraduate admissions service. It was introduced with the objective to offer students access to over 20,000 courses at 18 participating universities and colleges in England, Scotland and Wales – both taught and research courses leading to a variety of qualifications – including MA, MSc, MBA and LLM.
UCAS Progress – post-16 education and training admissions scheme
UCAS has launched UCAS Progress, a service enabling GCSE students to search and apply for post-16 work and education-based training courses – including academic and vocational courses (such as A levels and BTECs), as well as Apprenticeship and Traineeship programmes.
The scheme is free for students to use and is implemented as a national service – listing post-16 opportunities from all across the UK.
UCAS Progress also helps schools, colleges and local authorities address recruitment issues and statutory obligations resulting from raising the age of participation in secondary education; an initiative which legally obliges students to remain in full-time education or work-based training until the end of the academic year that they turn 17. However this is about to change after government reforms; when students will be required to remain in education or training until their 18th birthday.
This section relies largely or entirely upon a single source. (May 2018)
UCAS Media is a commercial enterprise that raises money by offering commercial organisations and education providers a channel to communicate with prospective students: in effect, it sells targeted advertising space.
UCAS Media does not disclose information about applicants to its advertising clients. However, it does send advertisements to applicants on behalf of its clients, and is able to target specific groups such as 'early adopters' or those located in a specific location.
All UCAS Media profits are fed back into the UCAS charity, much of which is gift aided. This reduces the fees paid by universities and by applicants for access to the UCAS service.
UCAS Media has proven controversial among data privacy campaigners. In 2014 deputy director of Big Brother Watch, Emma Carr, was quoted as saying:
"UCAS is perfectly within the law to sell on this information, but the way they are doing so, as is the situation with most data gathering organisations, is underhand. It goes far beyond what students would expect them to do with their data. Students should be explicitly asked for their permission before UCAS can sell their information on and UCAS should be open and transparent about who it is selling the data on to."
In 2019, Martin Lewis, the consumer finance expert, accused UCAS of abusing its position after it allowed a private debt company to promote high interest commercial loans to school leavers. UCAS had sent an email promoting loans by Future Finance, with interest rates of up to 23.7%, well above the current maximum of 5.4% on student loans and worse than most high street credit cards. In response UCAS said: “UCAS is an independent charity....This helps us to keep the costs for students applying to university as low as possible.”
- Common Application, USA and some colleges in Europe
- List of UCAS institutions
- Universities' Statistical Record
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