Go Higher: UCAS: marked by success

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The Independent Online
Its not often that I receive a letter from the Cabinet Office. To be frank, I have only ever received one. So when it arrived, a few months ago, I was curious.

The letter announced that UCAS had been nominated by a member of the public for a Charter Mark. This is an award which recognises organisations who are giving outstanding service to customers and UCAS has many different kinds of customer. We work for applicants who try with their family, teachers and career advisers to get a place in a university or college.

We also provide a service for universities and colleges so that they can select the best students who can profit from the opportunities provided. But there are other customers, such as the Government which requires data on application and acceptance rates for higher education. Academics and professional bodies also benefit from such data and the media has responsibility for informing the public of issues that surround access to higher education.

Here we were, however, being nominated by a member of the public who had been very impressed by the way in which his daughter's application had been handled.

We were asked to make a formal submission for the Charter Mark and we now wait to see whether we have been awarded it. One of the requirements of this submission was that we should have had conducted, within a fairly recent timescale, a Customer Satisfaction Survey. Fortunately, we had recently received results of a survey which had recorded an almost breathtakingly high level of satisfaction.

Although we were delighted to see that we had a satisfied applicant clientele, we cannot get it right all the time. One of the watchwords at UCAS is that if we get it wrong with only one application, which might be .002 of an error rate it still remains a 100 per cent error rate for that applicant.

This year I have been gratified that UCAS has received many more letters of thanks and appreciation than of criticism.

UCAS is a performance- driven organisation. We have a Corporate Business Plan which sets out business objectives and indicates strategies which we will adopt to achieve those objectives.

UCAS is structured into three groups (applications processing, information and planning and corporate services). These groups have their own business plans and the corporate strategies are their objectives. Similarly, the various departments, within those groups, have as their objectives, the group's strategies. The departmental strategies to achieve their objectives are then the objectives of the sections within the departments.

All our staff have personal development plans which enable them to measure how they are achieving against the performance targets of the area of UCAS's work in which they are involved.

The UCAS mission is to promote a partnership between applicants and universities and colleges, so as to provide applicants with equal opportunities to achieve a place in higher education, where they may fulfill their potential, and to enable institutions to admit committed students who will benefit from their experience.

This means that all UCAS staff performance is judged against how best they perform to achieve that mission.

We would like to think that the customer is always right. Since, however, the wishes of our various customers sometimes conflict, UCAS sometimes has a difficult balancing act to perform. From time-to-time the wishes of applicants and their advisers are diametrically opposed to those of universities and colleges. We have to try and strike a happy balance and in the process we sometimes offend one of our sets of clients. Despite these occasional tensions it was accepted that the applications cycle, leading to entry in the autumn of 1998, was the smoothest and most successful UCAS has managed.

Nevertheless, there remains considerable pressure to change the applications process to one which provides that application for entry to higher education cannot be made until after the applicant has achieved his/her qualifying examinations. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) has led a review of application procedures and will shortly be consulting on the possibility of introducing a post-qualification applications system.

If ever I thought that we had cracked it, and had achieved a Charter Mark to indicate consumer satisfaction, then I have another think coming.