UCAS. The very name seems to strike dread and terror into the minds of those who hope to go to university or college. UCAS is the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. It was established in 1993 through a merger of the previous admissions system for the universities (UCCA), that for the polytechnics (PCAS) and the former Standing Conference on University Entrance (SCUE). When we were setting UCAS up we specifically chose the letter S for Service.

It was thought necessary to set up UCCA in the early 1960s and PCAS in the 1980s for two reasons:

1. There was considerable evidence to suggest that potential students were applying to a large number of institutions, accepting offers of places at a good handful of them and, of course, only turning up at one. This tended to mean that institutions were holding places open for students who did not turn up thus denying places to others who might have filled them.

2. Applicants were confused that various institutions had different application closing dates and practices and it was thought that the rules of the game, right across the board, should be known to all applicants before they started.

The UCAS mission statement is as follows:

The mission of UCAS is to promote a partnership between applicants on the one hand and universities and colleges on the other so as to provide applicants with equal opportunities to achieve a place in higher education, where they may fulfil their full potential, and to enable institutions to admit committed students who have the ability to benefit from their experience.

The mission statement talks of providing a partnership and that is what UCAS tries to do. It is a company, limited by guarantee and a charity. Despite what some may think there is no government control whatsoever. The members of the company, who are therefore in control, are the institutions who admit through UCAS. There are currently 254 of which 117 are universities or university institutions.

Building on the theme of partnership, and despite the fact that it is the admitting institutions which own the company, UCAS tries to ensure that its finances are such that its essentially two sets of clients fund it equally.

This is to prevent either one set of clients or the other from trying to claim the organisation as "theirs". UCAS is funded from four sources. First, applicants pay a fee. Currently, this is pounds 14. In 1985 when UCCA and PCAS were operating for the first time in tandem, the fee paid by those who applied through both systems was in total pounds 10. Second, universities and colleges pay a capitation fee relating to each student admitted through the system. This is currently pounds 17 a head, which is the same fee that universities and polytechnics were paying in 1985. At UCAS we are proud to have kept all our charges well below the rate of inflation over the past 13 years. Third, UCAS has an Enterprise Company which goes in for publishing, both hard copy and electronic, distribution, database management, mailings, and the organisation of conventions and conferences. All of these sources bring in income which helps to keep down charges to customers. Last year our Enterprise Company made a surplus of pounds 1,250,000 on a turnover of pounds 4,200,000. Fourth, we earn interest on any cash balances.

The underlying principle is that the contribution made to UCAS' finances by applicants, on the one hand, and admitting institutions on the other, remains, roughly speaking, equal, so that neither side, as it were, can claim that the system is theirs and theirs alone.

A series of programmes about getting into higher education, made by UCAS, are being shown by the BBC. The next two are on 23 October and 30 October, both at 5.30am (record them!). They are entitled "Choosing the Right Course and College" and "What it's like at University or College" respectively.