Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Friday 19 August 2011

Hanging on the telephone

It's front page news today - the chaos caused by a crashing computer at UCAS and 135,000-odd applicants chasing 45,000 places in clearing*.

With £18,000 at stake in increased tuition fees, it was a no-holds-barred race for those who didn't get the expected grades, the Urchin among them. In the Tavern, as in thousands of other households, every computer was pressed into service, leaving no time for such trivial pursuits as blogging.

The same applied to telephones; if I had 10p for every time a redial button was hit across the nation yesterday, I'd be paying the Urchin's fees up front and heading off to the Seychelles for a month to get over the strain.

It's the perfect modern example of the Tragedy of the Commons. That's what UCAS didn't consider; there may be 135,000 applicants for clearing, but a substantial proportion of these will have press-ganged the laptops and mobiles of all their nearest and dearest into the effort, on the basis that every additional computer and phone increases your chances of logging on or getting through successfully.

With most households in possession of several telephones and computers, the result was jammed switchboards at every university with places still on offer. Whether you secured a place was largely down to  luck - getting through at the precise moment that a line became free. The end result is that many of those who narrowly missed the top grades will have lost out to those with inferior results.

There's a sort of January sales atmosphere about the whole business; desperate candidates grabbing any course they can to beat the rush and universities accepting on a first-come first-served basis rather than selecting students on their potential suitability for the course.

It will be interesting to see what the drop-out rate is over the next year.

Update: The Urchin, I am infinitely relieved to say, has secured a place at a reputable northern university.

*UCAS allows applicants to hold only two offers; those who fail to meet the requirements of either must log in to receive their Clearing number before scanning the lists of available places online. Having found a suitable course, they must then phone the admissions tutor on the number supplied by UCAS to apply for a place.


  1. Which of the three excellent universities in Lubeck might it be?

  2. If only we had the German system of transferrable credits here...

    The point about the north is that, while students queue up for places at Home Counties establishments, some of the excellent universities north of the Wash are largely ignored by southerners, despite the advantages of cheap accommodation, friendly locals and stunning scenery.


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