27 August 2019
Mary Curnock Cook on the changing face of higher education

Mary Curnock Cook was the CEO of UCAS between 2010 and 2017. She transformed the centralised admissions service into a digital service, increasing transparency and fairness. Since then, she has maintained a keen interest in the Higher Education sector, and is a supporter of EdTech companies including Unibuddy. 

Mary spoke to Unibuddy about the changing Higher Education landscape and some of the issues that are affecting institutions up and down the country: the changing value of a degree, Brexit, unconditional offers and grade inflation. 

A focus on careers and careers support

Students are changing the way they view degrees: “many people see getting a degree as a precursor to having a successful career,” Mary said.

This change in attitude should be acknowledged by universities – both how they attract students and in the careers education they provide throughout the student experience. “Universities could do more to support students preparing for their careers. You should be able to spend three years studying history and not feel guilty about it,” she said.

What does improved careers support look like? “People talk about transferable skills, but I really think students need help understanding what those transferable skills are, who they’re supposed to transfer them to, and how they’re supposed to transfer them in life. We talk about this very glibly, but universities could provide more support.”

The influence of Brexit on Higher Education

Students are changing – and culture is too. Research by QS has found that Brexit is fuelling uncertainty for international students. EU students are concerned about the financial viability of studying in the UK, while all international students are concerned that the UK might not be welcoming. 

Mary said: “The UK HE sector has always had a strong reputation, and we’ve always had very vibrant international recruitment. The UK is an attractive study location. 

“Whether there is a backlash to studying in the UK because of the cultural aspects of Brexit remains to be seen. For example, in the US, an even more popular study destination for international students, there’s been a Trump effect.”

The most important piece of the puzzle is what arrangements are made for EU students, Mary said. 

“Until universities know what the funding arrangements will be for EU students, it’s quite difficult for them to do anything explicit in that space. As in so many different sectors in the economy, everyone needs to know what the what the Brexit deal is going to look like.”

“Conditional Unconditionals”

University recruitment is under more pressure than ever, fuelled by this new view of Higher Education as a prerequisite for a career, increasing pressure for universities to recruit to hit income targets, and a challenging national climate. 

It has lead to a controversial issue that dominates the HE media right now: a rise in unconditional offers.

Unconditional offers are offers made by universities where the place is guaranteed, regardless of exam results. They can be used for students who already have met the entry criteria (for example, mature students who already have their A-Level results). They could also be used for those students who are still to complete their A-Levels, but whose application demonstrates a commitment to studying. 

However, many of these unconditional offers are so-called “conditional unconditionals”: the student is only guaranteed entry if they put the university as their first choice. The number of them being issued is rising sharply. 

Last year, over 87,000 students were given an unconditional offer. That represents more than a third of applicants – compared to just 1.1% five years earlier.

Former Education Secretary, Damien Hinds, called unconditional conditionals “unethical” and said they amounted to “pressure-selling”. 

Hinds said: “It is simply unacceptable for universities to adopt pressure-selling tactics, which are harming students’ grades, in order to fill places. It is not what I expect to see from our world-class higher education institutions.”

Mary has been a critic of unconditional offers and cites the effect it can have on students’ A-Level results.

She said: “it’s quite clear from the data and also from numerous discussions I’ve had with teachers and Heads of Sixth Forms, it’s generally not good for students’ motivation to have a completely unconditional offer.”

Data published by UCAS revealed that students who accepted unconditional offers were proportionally 7% more likely to miss their predicted A-levels by two grades than those with conditional offers.

Mary said: “It’s very easy for a young person to think, ‘there’s an easy route for me’ – but of course your A-Level grades do stay with you. Not for your whole career, but for some of your early career a lot of employers do still look at them. And I don’t see why universities wouldn’t just give lower offers instead of unconditional offers. If they’re saying that this is taking the stress off and helping students from more disadvantaged backgrounds, it seems to me that the best way to do that is to give a lower offer not an unconditional one.”

Universities are increasingly turning to unconditionals as a marketing technique to drive applicants and conversion, but Mary said that “universities should be able to do better than this.” 

Tackling grade inflation in Higher Education

Unconditional offers aren’t the only thing in the news. 

Data from the Office for Students published in 2018 revealed that the percentage of first and upper second class degrees awarded has increased from 67 per cent in 2010-11 to 78 per cent in 2016-17.

In March, the then education secretary Damien Hinds said the steep rise in first class honours was “unjustifiable”, and threatened fines for universities that did not crack down on the inflation. 

Mary said she was “not impressed” by those denying grade inflation, and encouraged universities to look closely at the data to determine if grade inflation is happening – and if so, how to stop it. 

She said: “Universities are packed full of very smart people who should be able to distinguish between grade inflation, and more people getting better grades because they’re working harder, they’re more motivated to succeed, and the teaching is better. That’s the big challenge for the sector.”

Understanding data to improve the student journey

Mary’s opinions on grade inflation and unconditional offers are fuelled by data – and she emphasised the importance of monitoring and understanding data in all aspects of university management. 

“Any university that isn’t using data from pre-enrolment, through recruitment, through registration through the entire student journey, and afterwards, will fall behind their competitors,” she said. “There is so much that can be gleaned from good data underpinning the student journey.”

A thorough understanding leads to better recruitment, better retention, and more student satisfaction. 

Harnessing analytics properly is allowing universities to give each student a more personalised, individual experience. Mary said: “Universities are recognizing now that they need to find ways of understanding each individual’s journey and to be able to lock on to students who may not be engaging properly.

“Universities are recognising that they have to look after students. It’s not just getting them through the door.

“A platform like Unibuddy is able to create something almost like a mentoring relationship. Having that ability to connect prospective students to those who are a bit further along the journey is really important.”

About Mary Curnock Cook

Mary Curnock Cook left school at 16 and began a career that spanned hospitality, food and biotechnology. In 2002, she achieved a Masters in Business from London Business School, part of the Sloan Fellows scheme.

Her post-university career took her to the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, and then on to UCAS. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service handles the application process for all British universities. Mary oversaw the organisation during a period of great change, and increasing digitisation. 

Since leaving UCAS, Mary is on the Boards of several educational bodies such as the Open University, the Student Loans Company and the Access Project, as well as supporting EdTech start-ups such as Unibuddy.

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