Controversy Over UK’s UCAS Withholding Application Numbers

Ucas, the body that keeps enrollment information about UK universities, is refusing to release application numbers to the public because of fears that it might introduce instability to the higher education market. The figures were originally supposed to be released after January 15th when the final admissions decisions had been made, but says that it declined to do so because “of potential volatility in supply and demand.”

However, some are saying that the real reason for the move is to protect universities that have suffered a fall in applications from embarrassment and to keep more students from fleeing. Vice Chancellors of a number of universities claim that the body is under a lot of pressure from some university officials to keep the embarrassing information private.

The vice-chancellor of one university explains: “If you were down 15% last year and the same this year, you’re in really serious danger. The understandable fear is that it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it gets out, will parents let their kids go to you?”

Figures on last year’s enrollments, released by Ucas in January, revealed shocking declines at some institutions, leading experts to warn that a university could go to the wall. London Metropolitan University was hit the hardest with a drop of 43% in 2012-13 compared with the previous year. Other notable casualties included the University of Bolton, which was down 25%, the University of Greenwich, down 23%, Leeds Metropolitan University, down 23%, and the University of East London, down 20.4%.

Head of Ucas Mary Curock Cook as much as confirmed this assertion when she said that the information is subject to over-interpretation by schools and students, and could lead everyone to the wrong conclusions about the health of the university in question. There’s so much concern over the issue that even university administrators have been unable to get a look at the data, on a school-by-school level. Ministers have also not been allowed to see the numbers, and many report being upset because that leaves them in the dark as to the health of the entire sector.

Legal experts say that Ucas may be worried about litigation if it releases negative applications data which is claimed to defame a university. However, David Palfreyman, the bursar at New College Oxford, who has written widely on higher education law, warns that students or parents may also seek to sue if they feel they have been kept in the dark. “There is a serious question of what the government’s consumer protection duty is here,” he says. “Shouldn’t kids and parents be able to hear that a place is heading into trouble, where undergraduate education may be disrupted by wind-down or even closure?”

However, lack of disclosure could become an issue for students who, according to a higher education law expert Dr. Dennis Farrington,  need to know if the university they’re choosing could be in trouble. With the cost of a college degree now as high as £27,000, attending a “failing” institution could lay down a substantial life-time hit.