Go higher: It's time to apply yourself to the electronic age

The huge expansion of online applications could finally spell the end of student mistakes and the annual UCAS paper chase
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The Independent Online
Even as I write this article there are tens of thousands of hopefuls filling in the UCAS application forms. Doubtless much valuable guidance will have been given on ensuring that the writing is neat, that applicants will have had a good practice before filling in the final version, on ensuring that there has been adequate research for putting down choices, on how to deal with the personal statement and so on.

To help applicants, there is the UCAS Handbook, of which 740,000 copies are printed at a cost of pounds 1.3m. There are around 430,000 applicants. Where, I ask myself, do the other 300,000 odd copies go?

While most application forms are written, there are many who are applying through UCAS's new electronic system. This new system provides all applicants with the flexibility of a personalised bespoke application form so that no one is constrained by lines on the paper or the space within them.

The software provided by the EAS, as it is known, is very helpful and prevents some of the silly mistakes that we see on the paper forms.

For example, eight per cent of applicants get their date of birth wrong (putting down the current year as their year of birth); another eight per cent put down courses that don't exist (a frequent mistake is to put down a course and its code which appear on the right-hand page of the UCAS Handbook, but put down the code of the institution which appears on the left-hand page).

The EAS, quite apart from preventing errors through its software, ensures that the application is processed more quickly when it reaches UCAS. In the past, every single application form has had to be checked manually.

Now electronic versions are checked by software so that the moment the application reaches UCAS it is processed and sent through to universities or colleges without it having to sit on a desk, while our wonderful checkers go through them line by line to ensure that everything has been put down accurately and that nothing has been missed. In its turn, this means that decisions on applications are made more quickly. This summer, during the clearing process, the demand by potential students on our electronic information services, through the Internet, was unbelievable. On the first day of clearing alone, 143,000 completed course searches were made. That effectively means 143,000 different people (although some will have made more than one search) accessed our vacancy information on the Internet.

That was more course searches in one day than through the whole of the clearing period last year. It represented something around three quarters of a million page impressions (or hits) in one day. Though the demand slowed down as places were filled, the numbers accessing the Internet were simply huge.

That has convinced us that now is definitely the time for the applications system to go fully electronic.

Next year we will publish far fewer handbooks and provide material both on CD, which can be manufactured at a mere fraction of the cost of the handbook, as well as publishing it on the Internet.

One of the real advantages of publishing through the Internet is, of course, that the material which we supply to potential applicants can be updated daily and will therefore always be accurate.

Each year the handbook takes months to set, print and deliver, and is effectively out of date when applicants finally receive it.

I have no doubt that our new policies, which must of course ensure that those who do not have access or knowledge of electronic methods are not disadvantaged, will be met with controversy. But a major change like this always is.

All the evidence suggests that most students are now ready to work in the electronic age and abandon paper methods altogether. This will lead us to a situation in which course information will always be more accurate and up-to-date, actions will be speeded up, without reducing the appropriate consideration, and the whole process will be therefore be much more economical.

UCAS is based at Rosehill, New Barn Lane, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire,GL52 3LZ. Website:http://www.ucas.ac.uk