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In the making: a 'computer dating bureau'

Will this be the year of the students admissions clearing house for further education colleges?

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is one of the successes of higher education. It provides a comprehensive and authoritative service of information on opportunities in HE through hard copy and electronic publishing. It organises conventions, guidance and counselling for prospective students, a research and development base on curriculum progression to HE as well as qualifications for entry. It also brings order out of potential chaos in the applications process.

The theory behind UCAS is that HE institutions know precisely where they are in terms of recruitment, that it is not possible for an applicant to hold offers at large numbers of institutions only to then register at one, leaving an untold number of places empty which could have been filled by others. Equally, it ensures that all institutions taking students play by the same rules. Prospective students know precisely where they are at any time in the applications cycle.

Now that the dividing line between FE and HE is becoming increasingly blurred, the question is whether there should be a clearing house for FE institutions.

Currently, 278 institutions fill their places through UCAS, of which 104 are universities. The rest are colleges of higher and further education. To qualify for UCAS membership, an institution must run at least one full-time first degree course.

Having joined UCAS, a college must use it not only to recruit to its full-time first degree courses but also to its Higher National Diplomas.

There is now controversy and accusations of poaching among FE colleges. Though not in membership of UCAS, they can attract applicants to HE courses and make offers that are accepted, only to find the students going to another institution, sometimes, but not always, within the UCAS scheme. The FE college is therefore left high and dry.

One of the reasons for setting up UCAS and its predecessors was to stop institutions being left in the dark over numbers planning. This is now controlled by market forces and regulated by UCAS to eliminate the difficulties. Those outside UCAS are subject to the whims of the market.

Recruitment to FE is largely local. The need for the bureaucracy of a clearing house may therefore be questionable. But then, recruitment to university and HE colleges is also increasingly local. Where you have clusters of institutions in, say, the Northwest, West Midlands or London, where they are within commuting distance, the need for organised applications is as strong as it ever was.

Whether a clearing house for FE would be modelled along the lines of UCAS is open to question. Then again, as access to HE becomes more of an organic process, with people moving in and out of full-time and part-time education, taking benefit of credit accumulation and transfer and wanting more opportunities to study locally, electronic monitoring of progression is likely to replace the more speculative application schemes for HE.

The results of the Dearing Review into HE, which may foresee closer integration of FE and HE, may well accelerate this. It would be wise to wait for the results of the review before trying to define what a clearing house for FE might look like.

But it is clearly on the agenda, even if the eventual outcome is "only" an information source on opportunities for HE in FE colleges and the possibility of non-UCAS members being able to link into the UCAS file, so that the position of individual applicants is known to all at any one time.

The more exciting prospect that UCAS is working on - funded by the Department for Education and Employment - is the creation of electronic profiles of all students, whatever their age, which would form the electronic basis of the relaunched National Record of Achievement.

Set alongside a database of all award-bearing courses, sets, modules, options, it would act as the ultimate computer dating bureau for FE colleges, HE institutions and employers. We can expect to see these ideas develop in the next 12 to 18 months. They will underpin the next Government's commitment to lifelong learning, whatever its colour.

Tony Higgins is chief executive of UCAS, vice-chair of the Corporation of Gloscat and a member of the Kennedy Committee of Widening Participation in FE

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