Skip to main content
A confused parent’s guide to the British universities admissions system (UCAS)

A confused parent’s guide to the British universities admissions system (UCAS)

The UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has its headquarters near Cheltenham Racecourse. This is quite fitting when you consider its purpose: to manage the annual race run by the UK’s school-leavers to get a place at their preferred university or college. Only it’s like managing a race run by half a million horses, all with different destinations.

UCAS is the central application route and clearing house for UK universities and colleges. If you want to study an undergraduate degree, you’ve got to apply via UCAS. It deals with your choices of courses (five, in no order of preference, although they used to be), your personal statement, reference, sporting achievements and promise not to break anything, and forwards it all to the relevant institutions if you can get it all in before the deadline. The universities are responsible for responding to applicants with offers or rejections.

In a similar way to the Common Application system in the United States, UCAS promotes access, equity and integrity in the college admissions process, and takes on the huge task of managing all the digital paperwork to make sure every prospective student gets a fair crack of the whip and finds a college they are content with.

The system is not without its shortcomings, though. UCAS is a charity funded by student and university fees and donations. But its commercial arm, UCAS Media, has been criticised for bombarding applicants with targeted advertising from education providers and commercial organisations, most controversially a private loans company with up to a 23.7% interest rate.

The personal statement as an assessment tool has also been criticised by some as offering an unfair advantage to students from well-off backgrounds who are more likely to have access to help with writing their statements, whether from private tutoring or from their private schools. However, the same can be said of schooling in general when it comes to poorer students’ lack of access to extra assistance. The personal statement remains a key element in the UCAS process.

Furthermore, UCAS’s own advice to applicants is not always as crystal clear or helpful as it could be. Writing on, education researcher Michael Morris finds some of its instructions as helpful as a chocolate teapot:

‘UCAS’s advice regarding visas is quite brief, and a bit vague.

“If you need a student visa to study in the UK, select Yes. If you do not need a student visa, select No”.

Thanks, UCAS.’

The same article offers a concise guide for confused parents and students faced with the UCAS applications process.

There are two annual UCAS deadlines for applications: 15 October for medicine, dentistry and veterinary science and anyone applying to Oxford or Cambridge, and 15 January for everyone else. Some art and design courses have a later application deadline – 24 March – to give them time to complete their portfolios. If you or your teen wants to apply for a university place, it’s well worth getting fully informed on the UCAS process with plenty of time to go before either of those deadlines.