Cyber taste of success: The future of university applications lies online

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The Independent Online

The quality and quantity of information that university applicants receive is becoming a hot topic. The first report last month of the National Student Forum (NSF), a new body established by the Department for Innovation, University and Skills to represent UK students, expressed dissatisfaction at the data universities provide to potential applicants, calling it "inadequate" and "incoherent". According to the NSF, details on courses, funding and institutions is patchy.

Maeve Sherlock, a PhD student at the University of Durham, who is the NSF's chair, says that potential students feel confused by the different information made available by universities. "Lots of students complain about lack of contact hours, or a course not offering what they expected – that's because the information that different universities provide is radically different, and some are really sketchy," she says.

"Students would like to see a central website where they can find out about all the courses and institutions, plus their assessment methods, contact time, and pastoral and social facilities."

The NSF's proposals come as universities are switching to digital media to provide information for their potential applicants. Around 95 per cent of British undergraduates regularly use social-networking sites, according to a study by Ipsos MORI last year, and universities are catching on, using the sites for student-recruitment drives.

Universities, including Cambridge, Kent, Cardiff and East Anglia, have their own Facebook pages, where users can "become a fan". Last year, the University of Keele set up a Facebook group to encourage prospective students to get to know one another and to ask current students about university life. It believes that the group had a role to play in Keele's improved position in Ucas's statistics on student recruitment.

A more complex opportunity for online interaction is being piloted by the University of Plymouth, which has this year launched online taster days for potential applicants to their secondary- maths teaching degrees. Prospective applicants can work with online materials and get feedback from tutors.

"People with family or work commitments or living in remote areas can't do three-day taster courses," says Professor Linda la Velle, from the university's faculty of education. "So we tried to make the virtual taster course as interactive and flexible as possible. People can do it in their own time and still have contact with tutors and other students."

Prospective applicants who surf YouTube might feel bombarded by university information, with several institutions launching their own channels on the site. University College, Falmouth broadcasts student talking heads engaging in unscripted communication on YouTube. "The videos allow prospective students to hear the 'word on the street' from their peers in a language they understand, rather than official sources of information," says Alex di Savoia, the university's online manager. "Our YouTube channel generates credible viewing figures and has been cited by applicants when asked how they learnt about the college."

Falmouth also advertises on sites including Facebook and MySpace. "This brings around 7,000 extra viewers a month to our website," says di Savoia. The hope is that those viewers translate into applicants.

Older universities are also making enthusiastic noises about new media. King's College, London has appointed Sapient, an interactive marketing agency, to develop a virtual campus for its staff and students. It's launching an online application process to replace their paper system, allowing applicants real-time online interaction with tutors. The university believes that the "any-time-anywhere" access is a better fit with applicants' lifestyles.

This echoes the intentions of the Brightside Trust (, a charity involved in helping underprivileged young people to enrol as undergraduates, especially in competitive fields such as medicine. It encourages pupils at 900 schools in the UK to chat online to students at one of the 35 UK universities signed up to the scheme, known as e-mentors.

Brightside's Nancy Campbell says that the scheme has had good results. "Mentors are only a couple of years older than the people they're mentoring, who are young people coming from families with no previous history of university. The mentoring combats confusion and exclusion through friendship and informal learning," she says. "It's a powerful demonstration of how new technologies can combat challenges facing prospective and existing students."

The use of new media in university recruitment is a step in the right direction, says Maeve Sherlock. "What students want to know is what it is like to study a particular subject at a particular place, what the course will be like and how it's assessed. The more voices they hear, the better."