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Red-faced University of Ulster chiefs to dip into contingency fund

Pledge to honour all place offers made in error will avoid legal action...but cost of blunder could top £380,000

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

Concerns have been raised that the University of Ulster was forced to make a costly U-turn in the wake of its admissions fiasco to avoid the threat of legal action.

UU has said it will honour an offer made to 100 of the students affected by a computer glitch at its school of Computing and Engineering.

The move reduces the likelihood of a lengthy legal battle with students who were initially told they had a place at the university — before receiving an e-mail saying it had been a mistake.

However, the decision to exceed their student quota will prove expensive.

DUP MLA Sammy Douglas, who sits on Stormont’s Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) committee, described the backtrack as a damage-limitation exercise and said although the university had been “open and honest” about the blunder there were still serious questions to be answered over who would foot the bill.

“I think the university had no option but to go down this route to avoid costly legal action,” the east Belfast MLA said. “If that was the case then there was no option but to honour the places. Obviously, if it did go to court that would bring even more embarrassment on the university.

“There are still a number of issues that I think will have to be clarified yet. The university has been honest and open about what has happened and they are trying to rectify it. But, this whole thing is going to go into operation within the next few weeks so, what about the lectures and infrastructure that is needed to implement it — who is going to set that up and pay for it? I hope that will be answered by the end of the week.”

Last week, UU mistakenly responded to 370 applications with congratulatory offers when there were only 194 places in the engineering faculty. An e-mail was sent to students who had not made the grade but was retracted several hours later.

On Saturday, UU said it had reviewed the cases of students who were mistakenly e-mailed and had decided to honour the offers. The decision could potentially see an extra 100 students arriving at the faculty in the new term.

A UU spokesman said: “The university decided to honour its offer to potential students because it was and is the right thing to do — and not because of any legal representations.”

The university will not receive the government grant of £3,800 which is usually provided to universities to fund students from Northern Ireland and the European Union. However, it is understood the £380,000 that is required for the additional 100 places will be met by a university contingency fund.

UU will also have to provide more teaching support and may face a financial penalty for exceeding the MaSN (Maximum allocation of Student Number) cap.

Professor Richard Millar, head of the UU’s Computing and Engineering school, said: “The university has a contingency fund for situations such as this. We did not have to touch that fund last year so there is funding there that we will draw upon.

“Exceeding the MaSN cap is something that universities would avoid but, we have a contingency that will deal with this as a one-off.”

But Mr Douglas said there were also issues of fairness and raised concerns about a two-tier system.

“It is unfair on other universities who have worked hard to get their own house in order only to be told that another university is getting additional places because of a mistake,” he added.

“And, if I was a student who had worked hard and got the right grades and found that someone had got in with much lower results I would not think it fair.

“Some of these students will undoubtedly struggle if they are not up to the mark.”

Meanwhile, the DEL Minister who has the power to impose a financial penalty on the UU for exceeding its student quota has said he will look sympathetically at the situation.

Dr Stephen Farry (below), said: “Universities routinely make more conditional offers than they have places in the knowledge that not every offer will be taken up, and through managing this process across all courses, over and under allocations will be evened out.

“In the event that this is mismanaged a university would expect a financial penalty. That said MaSN is somewhat of a blunt instrument and I am committed to a review of it as part of the new Higher Education strategy.

“The precise scale of the over-commitment from UU will not be known until the end of this week at the earliest. I understand the circumstances behind any distortion that may now appear and am sympathetic to the situation UU now finds itself in.”

Ripples felt from this U-turn will warp long-term planning

By Malachy O'Doherty

Suddenly a problem that seemed calamitous is easily solved. Students were notified that they had places at the University of Ulster to study engineering, 370 of them.

And this was a mistake. The university applies a little media savvy and presents this mistake as flowing from an effort to be more humane, people centred. Normally they would have sent letters to students and that would have slowed the process down, allowed more time for thought.

But, not to worry, suddenly it seems that the university can, after all, offer places to all those students, taking in an estimated 100 more than usual this year.

But how can this be so easy?

Are the lecturers who must teach them available? Will more now have to be recruited? And if the money is there for more staff, it still takes weeks to put someone into a post.

Then there is the question of the placements. All students on the course work through their third year in industry or public bodies. Well, there is still a couple of years left to plan but in a shrinking economy placements must have been getting scarcer anyway, without having to sort out another hundred students.

But more, isn’t this sharp intake going to devalue the degree? What of the students who properly qualified? They are going to find themselves competing for jobs with 100 others, many of whom perhaps wouldn’t have got onto the course in the first place. Employers are going to want to know, surely, if the candidate in front of them is one of the surplus that places were created for.

How will this affect applications next year? Will young people not want to avoid a university that has landed itself with a swollen student body?

How is this huge inflation of a course to be managed in the following years? Staff taken on to teach it may be let go again. Students coming after these will find the market flooded and jobs scarcer. And, on top of all that, the reputation of the university itself must be damaged. If you can get enrolled in an engineering degree by mistake, then what is that degree worth?

Not much, unless the final results of the students reflect the spread of merit in the intake.

The university has been thinking on its feet and moved fast to appease students given places in the wrong, by letting them have those places anyway. But it has a lot more thinking to do now about how this problem warps it own long-term plans.

‘Of course this has been |embarrassing, but we have been upfront from the start’

Professor Richard Millar, head of the University of Ulster’s Faculty of Computing and Engineering, speaks to Lesley-Anne McKeown

Q How did this error occur?

A A computer glitch. When we get through the admissions period we will have an investigation and that will obviously tell us exactly what happened.

Q Is the university hiding |behind the term ‘computer glitch’?

A I do not think we have hidden behind anything. Regardless of what the cause of this turns out to be we have been very upfront in saying ‘this is what has happened’ and ‘this is how we are solving it’.

Q How are the additional students being accommodated?

A Although 100 places sounds an awful lot more and it is, that is over 14 courses in the school of engineering and while it is not evenly split it is not creating for us pressure points on any particular course.

The courses were filled from the point of view of our maximum student numbers. We will now go through a process of looking at what the resourcing requirements are going to be for this.

Q What will the impact be on resources?

A We certainly will need some additional staff. That is part of the support that we will be putting in place. We need a bit of time to look at what the numbers are going to be. We don’t finally know what the numbers are going to be. Some of these students, we were their second choice university. So, they may or may not be coming to us. When we talk about 100 students that is probably a maximum figure on it.

Q Does this mean students who are not capable are now getting in to university? Will they be able to meet the demands of a degree course?

AMany of these students, we would have taken two or three years ago when there wasn’t the same demand for engineering. Our grades have only gone up for engineering because there has been such an increase in demand for places. We are talking about students who, if they were in clearing would certainly get an engineering place at a university in England albeit at extra cost.

Q Does this decision devalue the course for students who did meet the grades?

A No, it doesn’t devalue it for them at all. In past years we would have had students with these same sorts of grades. Of course, one of the things we must remember in all of this is that universities have external examiners whose role is to ensure standards. Therefore, if we are not able to bring these students to the standards, we won’t be awarding sub-standard degrees just to get students through.

Q Will the low grade students be easily identifiable and if so will they be subject to abuse from the other students or somehow stigmatised in any way?

A We won’t identify them. They will not be singled out in any way from the other students. What we put in place in terms of additional support will be available to all students on the courses. We will simply encourage the students to avail of it and we are confident if they do avail of this support that they should be able to make a success of these courses.

Q What are the ramifications for the course? Isn't it the case that you will now have two sets of students of differing ability? Will that impact on the higher achieving students?

A This is not bi-modal where you have good students and bad students. It is an absolute spectrum and we are well used to that. We are used to supporting students like this.

Q Will you incur a financial penalty for exceeding student numbers?

A It is because we do have the maximum student number — the MaSN (Maximum allocation of Student Numbers) cap — and if we exceed that there is a cost to the Department of Employment and Learning in supporting students and therefore if we exceed that they have the right to bill us for those support costs. That is a discussion we will have to continue to have with the department. We have never been fined before.

Q What would be the maximum costs?

A I don’t have the exact figure but it could be in and around £3,800 per student — £380,000.

QWhen is the fine likely to be imposed?

A I do not know that level of detail.

Q Is it fair that taxpayers are being asked to foot the bill for a mistake?

A That is a much broader discussion in terms of to what extent taxpayers should pay for university or whether they should not. One thing that is important to remember in all of this is that we have the local engineering industry complaining and saying that there is a serious skills shortage and that we need more engineers coming out. Now, this is not the way any of us would have planned to achieve that but, if we end up with 100 additional engineers graduating in three or four years time that is good news for Northern Ireland.

Q How will the university pay for this blunder?

A The university has a contingency fund for situations such as this. We did not have to touch that fund last year so there is funding there that we will draw upon. Exceeding the MaSN cap is something that universities would avoid but, we have a contingency that will deal with this as a one-off.

Q Is it fair on other universities such as Queen’s that the UU has been given extra places because of a mistake?

A We have got to remember that it will be the University of Ulster that will be paying for this.

Q What has the DEL Minister ( Stephen Farry) said?

A The Vice Chancellor has been in discussions with the minister but I have not been party to that. I do know that Dr Stephen Farry has been understanding and supportive.

Q This story has made the national news? Hasn't it been really embarrassing for the university?

A Of course it is embarrassing for us. But we have been up-front from the start about what has happened and we are trying to deal with this in a way which is right for the students.

Q Is it fair on other students who failed to make the grade and have been declined a place at UU?

A We must always remember that the asking grades do vary by subject and that is to do with supply and demand as well.

You would always in any normal year have a situation where students with a certain grades in one subject would get in and on the same grades in another subject would not.

The reaction we have had on this is that people are understanding.

Mistakes do happen and they feel that the right solution for the students is to stand over the moral imperative here.

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