UCAS (Universities & Colleges Admissions Service, pronounced "ʏwks", ) is a clearing house for applications to almost all full-time undergraduate degree programmes at British universities and colleges.
Those applying for medicine, dentistry and veterinary science courses can only make up to four choices (although the other choice can be used to apply for different courses). Those applying for Art and Design Route B courses can only choose up to three courses, which must be in order of preference; Route B applicants have until March to apply to allow them time to complete their portfolios.
Finally, applications to the highly selective Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are treated slightly differently by UCAS. Oxbridge candidates must apply by an earlier deadline in October the year before the student wishes to start university. This also applies to Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary science applicants for all British Universities. An additional restriction on applications to Oxbridge is that it is not possible to apply simultaneously to both Cambridge and Oxford.
Application costs £7 per student to apply to one course or £17 per student to apply to two or more courses. This is normally paid by the student.
The application also includes current qualifications, employment and criminal history, a personal statement and a reference (which generally includes predicted grades if the applicant is still in education). The application is then forwarded by UCAS to the institutions applied to, who decide whether to make an offer of a place.
Students whose applications are submitted by the deadline, would usually expect to receive either offers or rejections from all five choices by 28 March. If candidates find themselves without any offers or have declined all of their offers, they may apply for an additional course that still has sufficient places through the process of UCAS Extra in April. Otherwise, they would go through the UCAS Clearing process.
Offers are either conditional, i.e. dependent on future examination performance, or unconditional. Once the applicant has received responses from all the institutions applied to, they must respond by accepting up to two choices, one Firm Acceptance and one Insurance Acceptance, whereas the remainder are Declined. There are only 4 possible offer combinations:
In addition, many institutions still consider accepting students that narrowly missed their conditional offer provided there are sufficient places for admissions. Otherwise, if the candidates have achieved the conditions for the Insurance offer (or if this offer is unconditional), they will be admitted in the Insurance course.
If candidates miss the conditions on both the Firm and Insurance offers and there were not sufficient places for admissions on either course, a UCAS Clearing system offers candidates to apply for any course that has places at that time.
The system is sophisticated and allows for many different routes. Its advantages for both applicants and institutions are that it eliminates duplication of effort, and provides a fair and consistent framework within which both applicants and institutions can compete.
The personal statement is a very important part of the application. It gives candidates a chance to write freely about themselves and their interest in the subject, as opposed to the rest of the application which consists mainly of 'objective' information. The statement can form the basis of an interview discussion. A personal statement can be up to 4,000 characters (including spaces) or 47 lines, whichever comes first. It can be compared with the admissions essay in the United States.
There are a wide variety of qualifications that can be awarded tariff points:
For the 2006 entry season the Leaving Certificate issued in the Republic of Ireland will be admitted to the UCAS Tariff so that it can be placed on direct parity with other awards. This is in response to the high number of Leaving Certificate students who read subjects at universities in the UCAS system, especially at those in Northern Ireland. It will allow students who take the Leaving Certificate to follow a simpler and more consistent access to British universities, as currently each university in the UK decides the merit of the award in accordance with its own criteria.
Qualifications are being added to the tariff system frequently, as long as they conform to the National Qualifications Framework or the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework and are being used as entry routes in to higher education.
The tariff system is not a universal measure. It is a maximum amount. Frequently courses are advertised which demand a certain number of tariff points from different subjects. The requirements will vary by course. Academic courses will generally want academic qualifications while vocational courses will want vocational qualifications. Different universities and different courses have different demands. Some students are angry with the way that their schools have demanded participation in certain subjects, only to find that they have no worth when it comes to applying for university acceptance (the Key Skills Qualifications and A-level General Studies have come under fire for this very reason, since a large number of the universities discounted it from tariff calculation).
The major exception to the rule of application through UCAS comes at the very end of the admissions season, when courses are about to begin. After the announcement of A-level results, UCAS runs a process called clearing to match applicants without places at their chosen institutions with courses elsewhere that still have places available. However once UCAS's clearing operation is complete, institutions with available places do advertise publicly, and some students find places by direct application at that stage.
For applicants who fail to obtain any offers, or elect to decline any offers they have received, UCAS offers the candidate an "extra" chance to apply to a sixth institution, in addition to the five the applicant initially applied to. This is an automatic process, which is advertised only to eligible candidates. Extra is a chance for applicants to take another chance at applying to their chosen course, or if plans have changed, the applicant can choose to apply to a different course.
The statistics on numbers of applications provided by the UCAS process provide a sensitive indicator of the relative popularity of institutions and academic disciplines, and on national and regional patterns of supply and demand for higher education. They are studied in depth by university managers and those concerned with higher education policy.
UCAS had never operated within the field of postgraduate education until 2007 with the introduction of UKPASS , which is still in its infancy with a number of providers lining to join up to this new service.
As no British conservatoires are members of UCAS, it also operates CUKAS (Conservatoires UK Admissions Service) in conjunction with Conservatoires UK. CUKAS acts as a clearing house for both undergraduate and postgraduate music degrees at most (but not all) conservatoires. Those conservatoires that are not members of CUKAS handle their own admissions.
UCAS also operates NMAS (Nursing and Midwifery Admissions Service) for non-degree nursing and midwifery courses, however as of September 2007 these applicants will now be incorporated under the UCAS umbrella as NMAS is phased out.
UCAS was formed in 1993 by the merger of UCCA (Universities Central Council on Admissions), PCAS (Polytechnics Central Admissions Service) and SCUE (Standing Conference on University Entrance). The organisation is based in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.
In recent years UCAS has been involved in two high profile incidents. In 2001 UCAS accidentally made publicly downloadable from their website a database of applicants' personal details. In 2002 results data supplied by the Scottish Qualifications Authority included errors and omissions which led to UCAS informing universities and students that the students had obtained higher marks than they actually had.