Widening access the UU way

Full marks to UU for their novel approach to widening access by giving  everybody who applied for their engineering courses a place whether one existed (exists) or not. Very French. For the full story please follow the link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-19307130

Here we have a situation where:

– there were 180 places but all 370 applicants were  offered a place as  a result of a computer error whether or not they met their conditional  offers;

-it was not possible for the University to honour their offer because  of funding and space restrictions;

– having realised their mistake, the University apologised publicly and  said they would be contacting the individuals who had been offered a  place but had not met their offer and apologising personally;

– thanks to the BBC the unfortunate recipients of the errant e mails  achieved “victim” status (eg Donna Traynor referred to them as such on  Newsline);

– the University, with the agreement of DEL, has now decided to make spaces and places for those applicants wrongly offered a place on their  engineering courses.

Full marks to the University for apologising so quickly and putting  forward spokesmen of  the appropriate stature; it would have been nice  though for the man who took the flak for the bad news to be the bearer  of the good news.

Full marks again to the University and DEL for moving so quickly or perhaps not.

In sum a bad news story with potentially unfortunate consequences for  some individuals has been turned around. But hang on….is it that  straightforward? Are there not a number of questions to be asked?  starting with ….

Who benefits from the extra intake? Those students who met their offers  who will now be joined by those who did not and who will have equal  access to already constrained resources?

Where is the extra resource (teaching and non teaching staff,  accommodation, books, terminals, pastoral support etc) to be conjured   from? Will say additional staff be recruited and timetables and  classrooms rescheduled or will student numbers in lectures and seminars  be simply doubled up?

What does it say for the academic integrity of the courses and academic  standards if those unqualified to join the courses, do so and progress  through to degrees. Statistically there should be an increased  percentage of drop outs if a pool is widened, will this happen?

Will UU and potential future students be penalised by a reduced number  of places and thus reduced funding following a re-adjustment of  MaSN by  DEL?

How on earth did the University secure the agreement of DEL, it’s officials and Minister, inside 48 hours. It is simply not possible.  Could it be the University made up its own mind and Stephen Farry and DEL are an irrelevance in this matter?

Finally this was an unfortunate error, with unfortunate consequences for some (quantity unknown as yet) but in reality most will recognise  that they did not meet the required standard, that an email was sent  erroneously, and that nothing changes either of these two facts. UU should have apologised personally, given them some book tokens and kept  the gate closed.

I wonder what legal advice UU took?


  • Conspiracy theory: unemployment figures?

  • the future’s bright, the future’s orange

    The world gone mad. Everyone makes mistakes – get over it. Goodness knows what kinda clampits are going to get onto the course now…

  • Comrade Stalin

    If you don’t get your place you go into “clearing” whereby they place you in a course in another university.

  • RyanAdams

    Its my understanding a similar situation occured in an English university a few years ago. The end result was the university concerned was taken to court and forced to honour the offers.

  • the future’s bright, the future’s orange @ 12:53 pm:

    The usual resource on these occasions is for the senior member of the department to take the introductory lecture, look around the crowded lecture theatre, and announce, “There are only X places available for the second year — so half of you won’t be here next session.”

    Works a charm.

  • This is farcical on so many levels but a nice windfall for the School of Engineering which will have at the very least an extra £million and a half or so to help balance their books this year. Given how all the further and higher education establishments have to fight for MaSNs I’d be very surprised if DEL has given them an increased allocation. More likely (if the rumour about Queen’s is true), they’re being moved from Arts & Humanities courses which had a big drop in applications this year – contrary to media reports that every course as been sold out.

    Spare a though for the lecturers and admin staff on this course who will see their workload double this year. Given that most of them will have already sorted out their timetables and course material for the first semester, this is a right kick in the balls. Even if a portion of the extra income is allocated to providing extra resources, it’s too late in the day to put anything in place for the first semester. Engineering will re-jiggle their existing resources, book a few larger lecture theatres and that’ll be about it.

    Wonder what their first year progression figures will be like next year. How many of these students will be paying the tuition fee repeatedly year after year as they keep flunking in their attempt to make it to second year? Will the University care – so long as the cash keeps flowing, I doubt it.

  • The relationship between University and Student has changed over 35 years…
    Students should now regard themselves as consumers. And if they are not experienced enough at 18 to regard themselves as consumers..then they have parents who know their rights.
    In the mid 20th century, there was something of a mystique about University…a quasi religious experience because of the history involved.
    Working class kids were sucked into that world of Deans, Chancellors and all that.
    Not so easy at QUB and impossible at University of Ulster. In 21st century, people know their rights and probably thats how these kids and their parents looked at it.
    Getting a degree is not much different from buying a Big Mac in McDonalds.

  • fitzjameshorse1745 @ 2:54 pm:

    Getting a degree is not much different from buying a Big Mac in McDonalds.

    Discounting time factors, cost, and nutrition, naturally.

    That point about students as consumers, though, is valid.

    I wish the students’ unions had realised the anti-fees campaign was doomed earlier than they did (and were discreditably encouraged to persist in by Clegg and his LibDems). Had they switched to “value for money” (which they still are failing to exploit), they would have a far sounder case.

    Grossly-inadequate higher-education “libraries”, tutorial and study-facilities — all of which have not kept up with increases in student numbers — are now a national shame and disgrace.

  • Mister_Joe

    Computers don’t make errors. Inexcusable to blame them.

  • If I was a potential UU engineering student who had met the conditional offer I would be looking elsewhere, but most will not have this option. So I would be looking for a reduction in fees.

  • Well the difference between a “grant” and a “loan” is that the student is a consumer.
    In effect a student is paying £20,000 for a degree and that changes the dynamic between University and student.
    Buying a car at £20,000 gives the consumer rights….including back up, support etc….and even a bit of manners from the sales staff (lecturers)

  • Except the law doesn’t recognise a student as a consumer and as such they have no right to seek damages if they believe the University has breached any perceived contract to supply a degree.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Where is the extra money going to come from … 190 extra student fees that’s where.

    Okay you may need to squeeze a few resources here or there but that’s engineering for you. Just get a few postdocs on the job.

  • “190 extra student fees that’s where”

    Not just from the fees. The DEL also pays the university a set amount for each student they have. Can’t remember the figure but would be surprised if it was less than £5k per student per year.

  • sherdy

    The Machiavelli in me wonders: ‘Mistake – what mistake?’

  • @Fitz

    “Getting a degree is not much different from buying a Big Mac in McDonalds”

    Well… it’s not. You pay for a Big Mac up-front and that is an insignificant cost to most people. Not only is a University degree a more complex financial transaction, it is something that will likely have a bearing on the rest of your life. But okay.

    Generally – this has been a big error, but mistakes happen. It is isolated and the UU has taken measures to ensure teaching and pastoral care is in place for all students on the course. Let’s not get carried away with funding and cost issues which are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. We do have a tendency to blow these things out of proportion. It’s a grand screw-up, but these mistakes do happen.

  • Again @Fitz

    “Buying a car at £20,000 gives the consumer rights….including back up, support etc….and even a bit of manners from the sales staff (lecturers)”

    I am sorry but your analogies are all over the place and clearly based on little prior knowledge.

    Why would the lecturers be the sales staff? Surely they would be service or delivery staff, and the Uni marketing the sales staff? (Beyond the point really)

    The issue is that I feel you are undermining the whole University decision that is made by young people these days and misunderstanding the position as a consumer.

    This is NOT the same as an up-front payment for a product. It is a loan, but it is linked to your ability to pay it back in the future.

    This is also a life decision. I don’t know where your figure of 20k comes from, but that is probably based upon your estimated of tuition fees. Add to that interest, rent if you are living outside NI, and every other cost we associate with our daily life. This is an incredibly difficult decision with greater consequences than those in the standard consumer transaction.There are some similar relationships, but you should not try and equate it to buying a Big Mac or a car. That is a misnomer.

  • Mr Brown,
    People get a loan to buy a car.
    People get a loan to buy a degree.
    Ive actually had two experiences a “student”. The most recent was 2005-2009, after I retired.
    In this modern era the students were in effect consumers. Unfortunately the University had not quite caught up with the idea and still regarded themselves as doing the students some kinda favour.
    And with few exceptions people of 18 and 19 years old did not have the experience to “bring the burger back to the counter and say that it was cold”.
    It was left to old timers…..to complain and put some manners on the Uni staff. And boy do we know how to do that.

  • Well it would appear the storm has abated and in the light of early morn it is clear that:

    all who applied and didn’t meet their conditional offers will be offered a place, some on the degree course and some on a foundation degree course;
    additional staff and support staff will be recruited as necessary;
    the costs will be met from the University’s contingency funds.
    Everybody’s happy.

    Time will tell if UU made the right decision in opting for social engineering rather than, as Cambridge University did in similar circumstances, apologising for their error.

    UU claimed a moral imperative,and a case could equally be made for Cambridge, but overall I think UU probably did the right thing for the wrong reason (PR) and as such handled it very well. Congratulations to the faculty Dean who stood up to the mark.

  • Thanks for that, articles @ 10:58 am.

    As you shrewdly add, Everybody’s happy. Except the intellectually-challenged who, far from making it onto a fully-accredited h.e. course, are side-lined into the “foundation course”, which — knowing these things — amounts to A-level resits for dummies.

    The substantive course remains as was, with properly-qualified entry, staffing, finance and resources.

    The foundation course — at least for one term or even year — absorbs those who would otherwise be NEETs, and who are likely to be funded out of f.e. budgets. Since many now nominally on the UU “foundation” would otherwise be at the local f.e. colleges, perhaps doing something useful like plumbing or decorating, that amounts to a shifting round of staff and resources — why, UU could even franchise out the “foundation” course entry to local f.e. establishments.
    At worst, a handful of auxiliary staff, on short-term or “supply” contracts are recruited to cast pearls before …

    And UU likely avoids any “fine” from the h.e. bureaucracy?

    It all happily becomes a storm in a D-grade.

  • Hello Malcolm R

    In turn thanks.


    Alternatively it seems the private sector is entering the HE market with a gusto, Pearson Educational above being the latest. They must see significant profit margins in £6,500 charges and when you think of it with contact as little as ten hours a week even 1 to 1 tutoring is cheaper than £9k.

    Maybe the would be UU spannermen will have cause to regret their four year degrees if they are available in two years as seems likely in the future.