University entry chaos;News;News amp; Opinion

12th November 1999 at 00:00
Problems with the admissions service's electronic applications are prompting some schools and colleges to boycott the system and go back to using paper, reports Cathy Comerford.

SIXTH-FORMS and colleges scrambling to meet December's deadline to apply to universities have wasted hundreds of hours because of repeated malfunctions in the three-year-old computerised applications system.

The failure of the cyber-applications process has provoked a row beween schools and the university admissions service, with sixth-form tutors claiming that the electronic system has wiped out days of work by students and teachers. Some are boycotting the software and continuing with paper.

But the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service has replied that the fault lies with schools for using ageing machines incapable of handling the state-of-the-art application software.

An admissions service spokesman said that the system comes with an installation guide and a support helpline to ease schools through teething problems. For the first time this year the system, now in its third year, has been designed to run on computer networks as well as stand-alone PCs.

But while some schools have had problems running the new software, others have not even tried it for fear of losing the work.

Mike Holmes, senior teacher at Gravesend grammar school for girls in Kent, said that, although the system had worked last year, he had been told the new version was incompatible with his equipment. He said: "I was going full steam ahead to submit the whole group this year but we could not get it to run.

"We called the system helpline and got it loaded but we were still having problems. They then told us it was a hardware problem not a software problem.

"You don't expect to be given software which means you have to go back to the computer company to make it run."

A computer technician had to reinstate internet files on the school's computer system after the system's software wrote over them, he said.

Linda Hilton, vice-principal of Oldham Sixth Form College in Lancashire, said she had not yet used the system because of problems in previous years.

Mrs Hilton, who has submitted the college's 750 student applications manually this year, said: "We knew about the problems last year - it had been a nightmare. We have got the software installed and will do a test run during the year before using it for next year's applications.

The head of one comprehensive sixth form, who did not want to be identified, said: "I've had to spend hours and hours sorting this out. It's been very difficult. I said to UCAS that if we didn't manage to solve this quickly we'd be going back to paper."

Dr John Guy, principal of The Sixth Form College, in Farnborough, Surrey, said: "We are not using it principally because we are not confident how well it would work."

The admissions service spokesman said: "If a school has an out-of-date computer system that does not have the capacity to run it then it is possible they will have problems. Most have up-to-date systems. We have spent a lot of time designing a new system so we are confident it is network-compatible. If someone is having a problem they probably need to update their hardware.

He said the number of schools reporting problems was "not significant".

"We have not apologised to them. If they can't operate on their system that is disappointing.

"Last year hundreds of schools were running the system and it has since been upgraded for 2000. This gave us the chance to see the problems they encountered and iron them out."

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