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The Brightest and Best

At some point or other in the mid-00s, departmental administrators were summoned to a meeting with the marketing department and the Registrar, at which we were shown a series of PowerPoint slides displaying bar charts that showed large skyscrapers on the left against tiny bungalows on the right.

The skyscrapers, we were told, represented the number of enquiries that the institution was receiving; the bungalows represented the number of enrolments in the corresponding academic year. We were asked for our thoughts on what this data told us.

A hand went up.

‘Does it show that while a lot of people may be considering going to a particular university and make enquiries about doing so, that is likely to be a much more regular occurrence than someone who makes an application, is accepted and enrols, which is, after all, a more significant commitment than making a telephone call or sending an email?’

Incorrect. What the data showed, in fact, was that Marketing were doing a great job in generating interest in the institution and its courses, but that this interest was not being converted by academic departments. I suddenly felt as if I was selling double-glazing.

‘We all like working here,’ said the Registrar, rather presumptively. ‘But if we want to continue to work here, then the bungalows on those bar charts need to go up.’

The financial position of the university was periodically dangled as a threat, with briefings from senior management often carrying vague overtones of doom and the sense that a couple of bad years could see us fold up shop.

The idea seemed to be to keep us worried enough to work hard, but not so worried that we would not be able to do our jobs: indeed, when COVID-19 struck, there followed a swift revision of the prevailing narrative that financial hardship was imminent in a series of briefings intended to reassure staff that we’d be fine, actually. As long as we all kept working really hard.

The apparent emptiness of such threats did little to dispel the notion held by some academics that the university was supposedly ‘sitting on’ large cash reserves, which meant that their motivation to encourage the recruitment of students in larger numbers than they might like was somewhat lacking.

Indeed, there were times when you could be forgiven for wondering whether some departments actually wanted new students to come to study with us at all.

The ideal scenario for the most pompous academics was for the reputation of their department and/or institution to be so stellar as to attract the brightest and best students from across the country and for places to be so limited that they could afford to be picky. Some even acted as if this was the case.

In reality, like their counterparts in the vast majority of other departments and institutions across the country, they would need to take what they could get from the middle-to-low-achieving end of the spectrum, particularly when it came to undergraduates.

At one summit to discuss flagging application numbers, a colleague opined that the fact that her latest research papers had not been added to her personal profile page on the university website could have been a factor in poor recruitment.

It was suggested in response that perhaps the majority of applicants, especially seventeen-year-olds, were not in the business of scouring the web for details of individual academics’ research interests and publication history.

‘I don’t think that’s true,’ she said. ‘When I was choosing my undergraduate degree, it was one of the first things that I looked at.’

It did not seem to occur to her that, as someone who obviously focused on becoming, and then actually became, a professional academic in her chosen subject, she represented a miniscule proportion of the undergraduate student population.

It was the prevailing attitude among academics in some departments: one which assumed that the majority of students wanted to be just like them, and though many would pursue alternative careers upon graduation, it was not through lack of desire, only a lack of ability.

The bar charts of the mid-00s would return in increasingly varied and more detailed formats over the years, showing how long departments were taking to respond to applications and shaming the worst offenders with big red alerts that would cause marketing and senior management to demand a response and urgent action.

If recruitment in that department was generally healthy, these angry summons could be batted away and frankly thin excuses would be accepted. If not, a detailed audit of activities and processes would be required.

Again, all too many academics rather liked the impression that applicants might have to wait to hear from us. However, the received wisdom was that ‘treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen’ was as old-fashioned an approach to admissions as it was in other areas of life.

Eventually, it was decreed that departments could not be trusted to turn applications around in a satisfactory timeframe, and in the interest of appearing more responsive, the Registry would make the majority of ‘standard’ offers based on an applicant’s grades alone.

In other words, if your predicted grades were what the university wanted, you would get an offer, without the academic department ever seeing your application.

The Registrar assured us this was widespread practice across the sector, and that speed of response was considered a positive by applicants. However, it did also mean that admissions tutors would not be reading these applications, especially not the painstakingly constructed personal statements that applicants are told are of vital importance to the process.

(Early in 2023, UCAS announced proposed changes to the personal statement system, which attracted some headlines to the effect that they were being ‘ditched’ or ‘scrapped’. The proposal is, in fact, that from 2024 the statement will be replaced by a series of questions to better help applicants structure their answers. It doesn’t really matter how you frame the written contributions from applicants, though, if no one actually looks at them.)

Academics made a song and dance about key decisions being centralised and taken away from them, and crocodile tears were shed over compromises to the integrity of the application process.

But they couldn’t deny that this move spared those in busy departments the administrative burden of looking at hundreds of applications, and so it came with considerable benefits to them, too.

What they really missed was the power: the power to accept and reject applications at will without any oversight. This had previously allowed departments with healthy recruitment to cut off perfectly acceptable applications when they felt they were getting rather too many.

From the central university’s point of view, wresting control of admissions meant they could start sending out offers conditional on lower grades than departments would like. This would either be down to a unilateral decision taken without consultation, or an ‘accidental’ misinterpretation of the department’s wishes.

While the two sides argued the toss, offers would continue to be sent out, and had to be honoured.

The key points in the fight were about numbers and reputation. The interests of the student, or potential student, were secondary, although they could be manipulated and brought into the argument if need be.

Sometimes it would only take a set of poor coursework results in a first-year module, or an academic supervisor having a negative experience with a set of tutees, for a department to convene an urgent review of undergraduate admissions and demand an increase to entry requirements.

But if recruitment ever dropped to a level that threatened the bottom line, hasty drops at clearing – which, incidentally, was the full ‘manic sales team in a call centre’ experience, complete with motivational speeches from a harassed-looking manager and constantly shifting targets written on a whiteboard – would be approved in a heartbeat.


This is an edited extract from Our Teaching's Great, The Admin Sucks: Tales From Inside Higher Education by Ben Richards, available to buy now.


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