Monthly Archives: February 2015

The pros and cons of applying to international universities through Ucas.

Firstly, I have to say that any step to make international higher education as normal and as accessible as British university options is to be applauded. Since founding A Star Future in 2006 this has been my one overriding ambition so I will take help in achieving this goal wherever I can get it.

Having said that, the idea of applying to international universities through Ucas has been around for a few years now, predating even the increase in UK tuition fees. Many of the advantages and disadvantages of facilitating applications through Ucas are well-rehearsed hypotheses; it now seems that we might get the chance to find out for real how it will work.

It is difficult to know at this stage exactly what will be a pro and a con so I have listed all of the considerations I can think of and will leave you to draw your own conclusions.

  1. Ucas reserves the right to choose which universities are the right quality. Does it have this power in the UK? While there are good reasons for assessing financial stability of Higher Education Institutions as well as credential recognition, is it really Ucas’s place to pass judgement on this? This will naturally have a limiting effect on the range of universities abroad that might be willing to submit themselves to this vetting. At this moment in time there are possibly only two public universities in Europe (except Ireland) that could sensibly be considered candidates and one of these, Maastricht University, has already ruled itself out for now. We recently published a report on the Top 50 European Universities and the opportunities that actually exist in English at Bachelor’s level. There are roughly 100 suitable degrees and almost one quarter of these are found at University of Groningen, perhaps the only likely international addition to Ucas at this time. You can download a copy of the report from the advisors area of the A Star Future website.
  2. By allowing admissions via the Ucas process international universities will dramatically increase the visibility of their Bachelor’s degrees in the UK. We try our best to make British students aware of international opportunities but our reach is somewhat limited in comparison with that of Ucas. The publicity benefits alone might make it worthwhile for international universities to include themselves. It is worth noting that Maastricht University plans to make use of Ucas’s marketing services rather than application services, utilising data harvested from UK university applicants to promote international higher education. This is nothing new, however.
  3. While presenting international opportunities alongside British ones might give applicants a better overview of the options in other countries in their subjects, it will be extremely difficult to provide meaningful comparative data about them. Key Information Sets are not a standardised component of the data international universities provide to applicants. Where they do exist, such as in the Netherlands, they cannot really provide direct comparisons with UK data particularly in areas such as graduate employability rates and student satisfaction. This is easier in the case of measures such as staff/student ratios, contact hours etc. and might be quite illuminating for British students.
  4. Applying through Ucas will make it easier for British students apply to international universities although it remains to be seen whether other country-specific application requirements would remain in place. Using Ucas might give students an overly simplified impression of the ease of studying abroad. We regularly deal with students encountering difficulties with international admission systems. While this can be frustrating and some systems appear counter-intuitive for British applicants and their advisors, it does serve as a useful introduction to the fact that things are different in other countries. If you can’t cope with the vagaries of a university’s entry processes is it really a good idea to commit to studying there for at least three years?
  5. When applying to a British university it is ordinarily essential to do so via Ucas. In other countries it will be very difficult to shut down direct applications so students could theoretically be rejected through Ucas and still have the chance to apply again for the same course at the same university. Given that many courses at universities abroad have relatively low A’ level entry requirements (even the very best universities can occasionally make offers to students students with EEE and in many countries unconditional offers are the norm) will anyone who applies through Ucas automatically be given an unconditional offer? If this becomes widespread it could have a distorting effect on UK students’ application strategies. This is becoming less of an issue as more English-taught courses employ some kind of additional selection criteria but this is not true for all courses in Europe at this time.
  6. Students are already notorious for not researching their fifth choice in Ucas. Some might be tempted to include an international choice without properly investigating the implications. We already have examples every year of students who only realise that Student Finance England support is not available to them after they have enrolled at university abroad and this is in spite of the fact that both our websites explicitly state this. Will Ucas be able to give students an accurate picture of the financial reality in a way that British students will actually take notice of? In some cases it wouldn’t surprise me if students select a course abroad without realising this is what they have done simply because they will be attracted by the headline tuition fees.
  7. Currently it is possible for students to accept offers from two universities in the UK (firm and insurance choice) and as many as they like from universities in other countries. This won’t change if students apply directly to international universities. However, if they apply through Ucas will accepting an international offer take up one of their two choices? If so, they might wish not to apply through Ucas in order to take maximum advantage of the additional choice international universities can offer.
  8. If students do use international universities primarily as an insurance offer because of the likelihood of receiving a lower offer this could generate a huge amount of acceptances but a much worse conversion rate than British universities would expect. There are further complications involved with students treating universities abroad as an insurance choice. Studies at many European universities can start as early as the first week of September leaving only two weeks between results day and the start of life abroad. If you are looking at a popular student city, this lack of preparation is likely to have serious consequences in terms of finding accommodation and settling in. We would strongly discourage speculative applications to international universities based on superficially attractive considerations such as lower tuition fees and easier entrance requirements. Making it easier for British students to apply to international universities might give those universities cause to be careful what they wish for.

At present it seems the only international higher education institution that has actually been granted permission to list its Bachelor’s degrees in Ucas is a private fashion school in Amsterdam offering a degree accredited by Bucks New University at a first year tuition fee of €15,600. While I am not in a position to judge this institution in any way, it does rather contradict the arguments laid out in most news articles that have been published recently about this development.

It is obviously necessary to reserve judgement on the success or otherwise of this development. By allowing international universities into Ucas it may be that the greater long term impact is on students from outside the UK being able to apply to British and other universities at the same time. I could certainly envisage a scenario where international universities are attracted to Ucas because it might bring them international students who were previously only considering UK destinations. British universities might not be delighted by such a development.

A final concluding thought: If Ucas is looking at ways of expanding internationally might it not be best off employing its undoubted expertise to improve other admissions systems in other countries? Studielink in the Netherlands, for one, could perhaps learn a thing or two.

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