Are university open days closing doors to access?
Julie Kelly is the Head of the Student Centre at the University of Hertfordshire
As an admissions professional and the parent of a son in Year 12, I can’t help but wonder if part of the barrier to entry into higher education happens at the pre-application stage.
Since the introduction of higher fees in 2012, the Students Loans Company and universities have been at pains to promote the fact that a degree is “free at the point of entry”, but what about the hidden costs you incur even before you complete the UCAS applications form?
It’s not cheap
My son has just booked six open day visits, with the six he’s chosen fairly well spread across the country. To drive to all six universities’ open days, assuming a cost of 40p a mile, this would equate to around £600 in petrol costs. To maximise time, visiting neighbouring universities could be done in one weekend, but then accommodation costs would need to be added to the equation. Even being frugal with living expenses, it’s unlikely families would see much change from £1000 by the time they are finished. For those who don’t drive, the cost of train travel would undoubtedly have been higher.
Some universities offer travel bursaries to students, based on household income and the circumstances of the student. Of the universities we will be visiting only one had a bursary for up to £100 travel costs for the open day itself, while another will reimburse costs for travel to an offer holder day. Even if all the costs are reimbursed it does not take into account that families on low incomes are less likely to own a car and more likely to work shifts at the weekends or be reliant on weekend overtime.
Open Days offer an edge
Some families can afford to take their children to visit universities across the country, but how would an applicant from a low-income family approach this? Would they disregard the universities too far from home, make their UCAS application without visits or simply decide not to go to university at all? Many universities are now offering virtual open days which is helpful, but it remains to be seen if this is a real substitute for a face to face visit where you can get the ‘vibe’ of the place, meet the academics and current students and talk through what it’s really like to study there. Universities are also offer sessions during their open day on what it takes to make a successful application to their institution, so not attending the day could put their UCAS application at a distinct disadvantage.
There is also a potential consumer rights angle to this. If applicants are applying to universities they’ve not visited, how can they satisfy themselves they are making the right choice? Would you make an investment of £55k and commit three years of your life based on the information and claims you’ve read from a website?
Levelling the playing field
So, what’s the solution? There is no silver bullet, but we should start a discussion around a number of areas that might help:
I’d like to see a post qualification admissions model so at least applicants from low income families would have a clearer picture of whether they are likely to be accepted to a university before they invest significant amount of the family budget on a visit.
The sector should also consider why applicants have to apply for five universities and courses through the main application cycle. At a time when 92% of all applicants are receiving offers from at least one of their five choices, why not restrict this to three (thereby reducing the number of open day visits required) and then use Extra as it was intended as a second application cycle for those that hold no offers or that have changed their minds about courses, before clearing.
Finally, individual universities could offer more financial assistance in the way of meal vouchers or travel bursaries as part of their access and participation plans. For example, at my institution, we have been working to reduce this cost barrier by running free coaches for our applicants and their parents.
These measures individually or collectively could help reduce the financial burden of open days for all families, not just those on lower incomes.