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    Admissions Policies: Guidance for higher education providers

July 2009


     page 1. Background 3 2. Purpose of the admissions policy and connected legal issues 4 3. Responsibility for admissions 6 4. Admissions Policy 7 5. Admissions Policy content, approval, responsibilities and monitoring 8 6. Information for applicants and entry requirements 11 7. Support and training for admissions staff 13 8. Summary 13

     Appendices 1-4: checklist of Admissions Policies 14

    References 16

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SPA Guidance and Good Practice Statements

Supporting Professionalism in Admissions Programme (SPA)

    SPA is an independent and objective voice on UK higher education (HE) admissions. It leads on the development of fair admissions, providing an evidence base and recommendations for good practice and in helping universities and colleges maintain and enhance excellence and professionalism in admissions, student recruitment and widening participation/access. SPA works closely with HE institutions and other stakeholders to provide outputs as a resource for institutions which wish to develop and update their admissions practice and policy to enhance quality, transparency, reputation and fairness. Full information on SPA and its work can be found at

SPA Guidance and Good Practice Statement

    This guidance has been prepared by SPA in response to requests from institutions offering HE courses. Our objective is to provide good practice which has been derived from the analysis of evidence collected by SPA from discussions with staff on visits to institutions, at conferences, evidence from institutions policy and practice, and from desk- based research. There are a number of SPA good practice statements which aim to provide a wide range of staff in universities and colleges with principles and examples to consider to enable them to review and update their own policies and practices. Heads and deputy heads of institutions, senior managers, admissions and registry staff, student services staff, equality and diversity practitioners and student officers and representatives may find the statement of value and assistance.

    In the UK admissions standards, requirements, procedures, policies and decisions are the responsibility of each individual HE institution. This principle was affirmed in the Schwartz Report 1 and is set out in law. on Fair Admissions (2004)


    This good practice statement is for general guidance only, and should not be taken as a list of obligations or a legal document. SPA emphasises that it does not offer legal advice and cannot take any responsibility for actions taken based on this information. Institutions must always take their own legal advice as they see appropriate.

    SPA good practice statements are kept under review and updated as appropriate. Your comments or updates are invited and appreciated, please contact

     1 Fair admissions to higher education: recommendations for good practice The Schwartz Report, September 2004

    (accessed 9 February 2009)

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    SPA - Admissions Policies: Good practice guidance for higher education providers July 2009

    Admissions Policies: Guidance for higher education providers

    July 2009

    1. Background

    All higher education (HE) providers would wish to have fair and transparent principles and

    policies governing the admission of students to their institutions but it has not always been

    easy to convince those with an interest in HE admissions that this is the case. Indeed, the

    2first major review of HE admissions, the consultation undertaken by the Schwartz

    Admissions Review Steering Group in the autumn of 2003 stated:

    Over the past few years, the issues relating to admissions to higher education have

    risen to the very top of the educational and political agenda. There has been public

    debate about the criteria that universities and colleges should apply in deciding

    which applicants to admit. In general, this debate has focused on broad principles

    and practices. But sometimes the fate of individual applicants has caught the public

    eye and their personal ability and aptitude have been discussed in the national

    media. Admissions is still on the agenda - within governments, in the media, with the public and in

    the schools and colleges sector. The issue was raised again in England in April 2008 by

    John Denham, at that time Secretary of State for the former Department of Innovation,

    Universities and Skills (DIUS) (now the Department of Business Innovation and Skills - BIS)

    in his speech to the HEFCE conference when he stated:

    “We have to look for … measures that will reassure the public… based on the

    fundamental principle that universities decide whom they should admit. The answer

    lies… in openness, transparency and accountability. It lies in each university having

    a published admissions policy; being able to show that it has measures in hand to

    equip all those involved in admissions to implement the policy accurately and fairly;

    and in each university being able to assure itself that this is being done.”

    In England this was taken forward by HEFCE and the Office for Fair Access and in January

    2009 HEFCE published the Request for widening participation strategic assessments. This

    document requested that higher education institutions and further education colleges

    directly funded by HEFCE submit widening participation strategic assessments. It outlined

    the reporting framework and provided guidance that set out the expectations of HEFCE and

    OFFA. Institutions in England were required to submit their widening participation strategic

    assessment by 30 June 2009. These widening participation strategic assessments

    included the need for the HEI to provide a high-level statement on admissions policy

    showing how the institution would ensure transparency, consistency and fairness through

    its own internal procedures. Institutions were asked to append to the assessment their

    access agreement and published admission policy, or details of how these could be


    The Schwartz Report Fair admissions to higher education: recommendations for good

    practice in September 2004 summarised the 280 responses from its second consultation in 2004. Over one third of the responses were from higher education institutions (HEIs).

    These highlighted the overwhelming support for the high-level principles of transparency

     2 Schwartz first consultation on Key Issues Relating to Fair Admissions to Higher Education, September 2003

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    (98%), reliability and validity (96%), selecting for merit, potential and diversity (94%),

    minimising barriers (98%), and professionalism (97%). In addition over 70% were in favour

    of greater use of the QAA Code of Practice on admissions to HE and moving to more

    centralised admissions models for admissions decision- making. The recommendations in

    the Schwartz Report itself emphasised that unambiguous and transparent admissions

    policies are at the heart of a fair and professional admissions process, and Principle 1 in the

    report stated:

    A fair admissions system should be transparent. Universities and colleges

    should provide, consistently and efficiently through appropriate mechanisms, the

    information applicants need to make an informed choice. This should include the

    institution‟s admissions policy and detailed criteria for admission to courses, along

    with an explanation of admissions processes. It should include a general indication

    of the weight given to prior academic achievement and potential demonstrated by

    other means.

    The latest available information should also be provided about the entry

    qualifications of applicants accepted on each course, and procedures for complaints

    and appeals. Institutions should conduct and publish a periodic analysis of

     admissions data, and provide feedback on request to unsuccessful applicants.

    The recent Schwartz Report Review of 2008 showed continued development and support for the Schwartz Report principles and revealed that a number of these have been

    successfully adopted by the HE sector, particularly in relation to the areas of transparency,

    staff training and continuing professional development and the use of technology to share

    resources and information, while overall respondents agreed that it was important that

    universities and colleges have students from a wide range of backgrounds and that it was

    good to consider additional measures of assessment in admissions.

    However, while the Schwartz Report acknowledged that admissions to HE were „generally

    fair‟, section B14 stated that „While universities and colleges generally publish their

    admissions policies as well as admissions criteria and processes for individual courses, the

    level of detail varies.‟ SPA is aware from its visits to HE providers and its research on HEIs

    websites that this is still the case today. Institutions need to make more explicit to

    applicants via their websites the good practice in admissions policies and processes that

    they follow every day.

    This guidance has been produced to assist and support HE to develop further their good

    practice and professionalism when considering, reviewing, updating, publishing and

    disseminating a transparent and fair admissions policy. Although the focus is on

    undergraduate admissions, much of this guidance can apply equally to postgraduate

    admissions as well as admission to professional and part-time courses.

    2. Admissions policy - purpose and legal issues

    2.1. Purpose

    2.1.1. An institution‟s admissions policy covers everything it does in the area of admission of

    students to the institution, from enquiries, student recruitment and outreach to making

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    admissions decisions, the interface with UCAS, relationship-building and working with

    partners, diversity, transition support, registration and beyond, with links to retention issues.

    The admissions process is a key part of the institutions strategic management process and

    a precursor to the whole student experience.

    2.1.2. The policy should provide a source of information, of good quality and level of detail, on all

    aspects of an institution‟s admissions policies and procedures and should highlight how the

    policy supports the achievement of the institution‟s mission and strategic plans, shows

    commitment to applicants and how the policy informs the operational aims. The policy

    should demonstrate the importance of recruitment; admissions and widening inclusion to

    the institution and show how these activities enjoy the institution‟s support and commitment.

    2.1.3. It must be transparent and helpful to a variety of audiences but mainly to applicants and

    their advisors and to the institution‟s own staff. It should be clear who the audience is and

    how their needs are being addressed.

    2.1.4. When preparing or reviewing admissions policies SPA recommends that HE providers

    should consult the QAA Code of Practice, Section 10, on admissions to higher education (September 2006) and ensure their policies comply with its precepts. Institutions should also be guided by the principles outlined in the Schwartz Report on fair admissions.

    2.2. Legal issues

    2.2.1. In addition either in the main policy, or in an appendix or connected area, there could be

    details of the institution‟s commitments, compliance and arrangements in connection with its various legal and statutory obligations. This may be just a sentence, or a short

    paragraph, or more detail as appropriate and as determined by the institution. So, for

    example, under equality, diversity and other legislation currently in place there could be

    reference to the following:

    Age Discrimination Act 2006

    Children Act 2004

    Data Protection Act 1998

    Disability Discrimination Act 2005

    Equality Act 2006

    Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007

    Freedom of Information Act 2000

    Human Rights Act 1998

    Race Relations Act 1976

    Race Relations (Amendments) Act 2000

    Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006

    Sex Discrimination Act 1975

    Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001

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    Please note this is not an exhaustive list, this legislation may apply to all or only parts of the

    UK and may be amended. 2.2.2. Each different administration of the UK may be affected by particular legislation, statutory

    instruments or equivalent and institutions should ensure they comply with all the relevant

    legislation applicable. Consultation with the institution‟s Registrar, Head of Student

    Services and/or legal advisor may be helpful.

    2.3. Equality and Diversity 2.3.1. Institutions will be aware that they may have many obligations not only to avoid

    discrimination but to actively promote equality of opportunity, set out in a range of

    legislative and statutory instruments. Institutions will wish to review all of their admissions,

    recruitment and widening inclusion policies and practices in the light of these requirements.

    2.3.2. Connected with these duties is the obligation on institutions in all parts of the UK to

    undertake Disability, Diversity and Equality Impact Assessments. Institutions will often

    have their own Diversity or Equality Offices to assist in taking this forward but the Equality

    Challenge Unit (ECU) will also be able to offer advice and help. 3. Responsibility for admissions

    3.1. Admissions standards, requirements, procedures, policies and decisions are the

    responsibility of each individual HEI. This was stated in the Schwartz Report and is stated

    in law.

    ? In England and Wales this responsibility in the case of HEIs is detailed in the Higher

    Education Act 2004, Part 3, Section 32, subsection 2 (b) which states that the Director

    of OFFA (or the Welsh Assembly Government in Wales) has a duty to protect academic

    freedom including, in particular, the freedom of institutions to determine the criteria for

    the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases.

    ? In Scotland this is enshrined in the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 2005.

    Section 9 Subsections 1 and 2 of the Act stipulates that the Scottish Ministers may

    make grants to the Scottish Funding Council subject to such terms and conditions as

    the Scottish Ministers consider it appropriate to impose but Subsection 12 (b) (ii)

    stipulates that „Terms and conditions imposed under subsection (2) may not be framed

    by reference to the admission of students.‟

    ? SPA believes the same responsibility and protection applies to institutions in Northern

    Ireland under similar legislation (the 2004 HE Act states that only Part 1 extends to the

    entire UK and Section 32, 2, (b) comes within Part 3).

    3.2. In addition, within the admissions process a contract exists between the institution and the

    individual applicant, with all the attendant provisions under contract legislation. The terms

    of the contract are further defined and limited by other legislation.

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    4. Admissions Policy

    4.1. Structure and audience

    4.1.1. Institutions may have one overarching policy for all audiences that is clear and transparent

    together with more in-depth policy documents for different types of applicants such as part-

    time, disabled applicants etc., or for particular elements of policy, such as criminal records

    procedures or the acceptability of different types of qualifications. 4.1.2. A policy may cover applicants to undergraduate full-time courses/programmes only with

    separate policies for different types of applicants or it may also encompass postgraduate,

    part-time etc. admissions, with detailed policies and procedures. Some institutions may

    have different admissions policies covering „home/EU‟ and „international/ overseas‟

    students. Institutions will decide what is most appropriate, but all policies must be

    transparent, easy to find and understand, both on the website and referred to or outlined in

    relevant printed materials.

    4.1.3. The policy may be one substantial document of many pages encompassing all aspects of

    the institution‟s policy and procedures in detail, or it may be a short summary of general

    principles with links to specific policies such as the complaints procedure or the policy for

    applicants progressing from compacts, progression or articulation agreements. In either of

    these cases links to course/ programme, department, school or faculty policies would be

    useful, if these clarified differing decision making processes and responsibilities. 4.1.4. More detailed process and procedure guidelines, for example procedures for how decisions

    are recorded and processed within your institution, the institutions on-line processing to

    UCAS etc. can be for internal use only and part of in-house training and professional

    development materials.

    4.1.5. The policy should make clear to all stakeholders, both inside and outside the institution, the

    commitment of the institution and its senior staff to recruitment, admissions and widening


    4.1.6. It is very important that all the relevant parts of the institution (academic departments or

    schools, marketing, student recruitment, widening inclusion etc.) should be familiar with the

    admissions policy. The policy is not a matter just for the Admissions Office (in whichever

    part of the organisation it is situated) but something which should inform all aspects of the

    institution‟s relationship with enquirers and applicants and consequently all areas should be

    aware of the Policy and its implications.

    4.1.7. Institutions may have a policy or handbook for academic/ administrative decision-makers

    and support staff with regard to the procedures at the institution and/ or for the course or

    programme, department, school or faculty. Although produced for staff these could also be

    made available to applicants for greater clarity and transparency. 4.2. Language

    An admissions policy should be clearly written and easy to understand by all who may use

    it. If the policy and its associated documents are large and complex it may be helpful to

    have a „user friendly‟ version for applicants explaining the key points which affect them.

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    Any technical language, jargon or acronyms which may not be understood by all should be

    explained, possibly even by means of a short glossary.

    4.3. Transparency, accessibility and dissemination 4.3.1. The admissions policy might be a printed publication freely available or, more likely, would

    be available on the institution‟s website. Many institutions now find that their website is

    easier to keep up to date than printed publications, and refer in printed publications either to

    their Entry Profiles linked back to their own website or to their main website as being the

    main source of up to date information with regard to admissions criteria and policy.

    4.3.2. If the website is the main source for policy information it must be kept up to date and be

    easily accessible. Liaison between admissions, recruitment, marketing and the staff

    responsible for web update (the webmaster for the institution, or relevant office) must be

    frequent and the site regularly updated with new or revised information. This should

    preferably be more than once a year.

    4.3.3. On the website institutional admissions policies should be:

    ? easily and simply found from the home and relevant pages, e.g. under how to apply,

    admissions policy, etc. with a minimal number of „clicks‟, and the main policy should be

    cross referred to course/ programme entries, Entry Profiles and the related individual


    ? identified in any A-Z listing for the institution

    ? easily found by a keyword search. Such a search should point first to the main

    institutional policy rather than the individual polices such as complaints procedures for

    admissions or to those of individual departments or faculties

    ? situated in a general area where enquirers might be expected to find them, or linked to

    these. They should not be solely in an internal governance or administrative area

    where applicants are unlikely to look for them.

    4.3.4. Just as all the relevant parts of the institution should be aware of the Policy and its

    implications, so all staff should be closely involved in the dissemination of the Policy

    through their own publications and web pages and with external contacts including

    enquirers, applicants, their families and advisors.

    4.3.5. Dissemination must be internal as well as external. It is essential that all the institution‟s

    staff are aware of the admissions policy.

    5. Admissions Policy content, approval, responsibilities and monitoring

    As stated in 4.1, the structure of an institution‟s admissions policy may vary but should, as a

    minimum, cover the following aspects:

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    5.1. High level statement 5.1.1. The high-level admissions statement should underlie all an institution‟s activities in the area

    of recruitment, admissions and widening inclusion and all activity in these areas should be

    in accordance with it. It should be a general expression of the institution‟s commitment to

    the admission of students and the qualities, skills and knowledge it looks for in applicants.

    5.1.2. The statement may be drawn from the institution‟s charter or other founding document and

    will also be reflected in its mission statement, strategic plan and other strategic-level

    documents. It should include the institution‟s commitment to fair access for all applicants.

    5.1.3. In England it is this type of high level statement that HEFCE/OFFA have sought as part of

    an institutions Widening Participation Strategic Assessment.

    5.2. Principles

    5.2.1. A general statement of the institution‟s commitment to applicants, to the application process

    and to transparency and consistency, and to the process of equal consideration of all

    applicants who apply by the relevant date as detailed in the UCAS, GTTR, CUKAS

    Admissions Guide, or the institutions own deadline date for part-time, postgraduate or

    other applicants.

    5.2.2. A statement to emphasise that recruitment, admissions and widening inclusion are at the

    core of the institution‟s activities and have the support and commitment of the institution

    and its senior staff.

    5.2.3. The qualifications, knowledge, qualities and skills applicants should have (this could also

    refer to more detailed information contained in the institutions Entry Profiles on the UCAS

    or GTTR Course Search website) and how the institution interprets/assesses merit and

    potential (e.g. based on results in qualifications, admissions tests, interviews and other

    factors that provide context that are taken into account as part of admissions decision-

    making, and some indication of the weighting given to the different factors considered).

    5.2.4. General statements on the way in which applications are considered and assessed, how

    decisions are made and who is responsible for making decisions on applications

    (centralised/decentralised, academic/administrators etc.), details of how policies and

    procedures operate at the level of the admissions decision-makers/selectors and likely

    timescales under which an applicant may, for example, be invited to interview, receive a

    decision, be required to take an admissions test etc.

    5.2.5. The institution‟s commitment to dealing appropriately with complaints and appeals/reviews

    of admissions decisions (the details may be given here or elsewhere).

    5.2.6. Details of any codes or procedures to which it adheres, for example, the QAA Code of

    Practice or UCAS procedures or (particularly at the level of departments, courses and

    programmes) the requirements of professional, statutory and regulatory bodies.

    5.2.7. The policy should include contact details of an office or person where more information or

    advice can be obtained or to whom queries on admissions policies should be addressed.

    5.2.8. The date when the policy was last reviewed, updated and approved.

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    5.3. Strategic framework, responsibilities, policy approval and updating

    5.3.1. The institution should have a body such as an Admissions Committee and/or an individual

    (e.g. Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Vice-Principal) with overall responsibility for the institution‟s

    admissions policy, its review and approval.

    The policy should provide some detail as to the remit and responsibilities of the committee or individual, including: oversight of the admissions process across the institution to ensure that it is in line with institutional guidelines; ensuring that the decision making process and assessment methods (e.g. the development and use of admissions tests, the use of interviews etc.) comply with institutional guidelines; regularly reviewing the admissions policy and making recommendations as appropriate to the relevant committee or body within the institution; ensuring that admissions staff are trained and receive adequate support to do their job and that there is a job description or clear explanation of the roles and responsibilities of the admissions tutors and centrally based admissions decisions- makers and others involved in the admissions decision- making process.

    The committee‟s membership e.g. Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Vice-Principal, academic

    admissions tutors, head of admissions, Academic Registrar, head of widening participation/access, head of schools and colleges liaison/ outreach, student representative, etc. Both central and decentralised staff should be involved.

    5.3.2. Policies are only ever as good as their implementation. Institutions may have excellent

    policies but if they are not implemented and adhered to this will be evident and processes will not comply with institutional strategies and aims. It is the role of the Admissions Committee and/or Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Vice-Principal or equivalent to monitor the implementation of policies and the responsibility to institute change if it is needed.

    5.3.3. Institutions should have in place arrangements for regular reporting on and monitoring the

    admissions process (at least each year). If admissions decision-making is decentralised, this may involve receiving reports from faculty, school or departmental staff. Monitoring should include the use of data and statistics on applications, offers and acceptances and the analysis and interpretation of these to ensure that the admissions policy is being applied fairly and consistently within the institution. It is the institution‟s responsibility to

    investigate any issues arising from the evaluation and to then make any necessary changes to policy and procedures as a result of this monitoring and evaluation.

    5.3.4. The policy should be easy to work with and carry appropriate amounts of detail at different

    levels. If policies are unduly complex, and if every detailed change requires the approval of the institution‟s most senior authorities, policies will be difficult to revise and may quickly

    become out of date. Consequently institutions should consider whether authority over some levels of detail should be devolved so that, for example, the head of the admissions office in discussion with an academic admissions tutor has the authority to include or exclude specific A levels or qualifications, or alter a standard offer.

    5.3.5. The policy itself should be reviewed to ensure that it reflects the changing external

    environment (for example, changes in legislation) and any changes in the institution (for example, of aims, objectives or structure). It should be clear who is responsible for this review and how frequently it should take place. Details of who last reviewed and approved the policy, and when it was done, should appear on the policy on the web.

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