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Could UK universities start charging for fast-track admissions?

The PIE recently reported on the invisible support helping university admissions, detailing some of the white label, private sector solutions helping universities to increase capacity. Many institutions are ramping up their operations through private providers to deal with increased volume.

There is growing precedent for fast-track services across the international education industry. Photo: pexels

It is clear that some time-hungry students and agents would pay for a fast-track service

Despite these efforts however, it is clear that some universities either cannot afford to expand their admissions capacity or will simply never keep pace with the rising tide of applications.

So when demand exceeds supply, is the next rational step to commoditise the queue?

You may be surprised to learn that theme park fast-track queuing systems are not just a way of adding an additional revenue stream, they also serve an important psychological purpose in managing and meeting customer expectations.

When demand is high, customers can be divided into two distinct groups; people who are price sensitive and people who are time sensitive. The creation of a premium fast-track queuing system actually improves satisfaction in both groups.

Those who are price sensitive see that they are getting the same product for a cheaper price, they just have to be patient. Those who are time sensitive can choose to value their time above money, by paying for a faster service. The type of queuing experience becomes an active choice and therefore the consequences are closer to our expectations.

In wider society, waiting is generally viewed as a problem and can be the main cause of consumer dissatisfaction. Higher education is no different and the sector has been hampered in recent years by long delays in application response times or visa processing.

Rose Omonubi, executive director of Nubi Education in Nigeria, admitted that “some universities have kept some applications for too long”.

“[My team] talk to these students to change them to another university because they can’t wait any longer. If a student is waiting for eight weeks, that’s too long,” she said.

“We have so many universities that offer this course so we try to discuss with a student about transferring their application somewhere else.”

“Queuing is a behaviour that people abide by because it equalises social competition in a period of anticipation”

Nisa Bayindir, a behavioural psychologist who advises the higher education sector on the customer journey, explained that “queuing is a behaviour that people abide by because it equalises social competition in a period of anticipation.”

However she warned that while “people are okay with queueing because of the inherent fairness”, many will not relish the experience as it “strips individuals of their winning strategies”.

Speed has certainly become a winning differentiator in competition for places, particularly in the commercial recruitment sector where reputation is built on securing timely offers for students, and there is growing precedent for fast-track services across the industry.

The UK visa and immigration office already offers a priority visa application service priced at an additional £500 to the application fee, that guarantees a response within five working days. It also offers a super-priority service, for an additional £800, to receive a next-day response.

Global agent, IDP Education, has established a fast lane admissions service in the UK and Australia which claims to generate an offer-in-principle for students six times faster than if they applied directly.

Participating university partners are required to sign-up to a service-level agreement that ensures IDP applications will be dealt with as a priority.

Simon Emmett, CEO of IDP Connect said, “we introduced our, free to use, FastLane service following detailed research with students and with institutions”.

“It was clear from the research that greater speed and efficiency needed to be introduced into the application process and that making the right academic matches earlier in the student journey drives better outcomes for students and institutions,” Emmett explained.

“For the student, they do not waste their time making speculative applications to institutions as the service gives them a very high level of certainty by giving them an offer in principle before they apply. For institutions, they are able to concentrate time and resources on applications that they know are pre-screened and have been thoroughly checked and verified by an IDP counsellor,” he added.

As a result, in the UK, IDP offers were reportedly received in five days by applicants, compared to an overall average of 30 days. This is particularly influential for students seeking offers from selective, higher ranking universities where wait times could be lengthy.

Bayindir went on to explain that the process of university admissions is a unique case in psychological terms because “the queue is invisible to the queuers”. This makes the experience entirely different to a theme park system.

“Applicants know their applications are in line to be considered however they receive few [tangible] signals as to where they are in the queue or what each stage involves, known as a communication blindspot,” she continued.

“Scientific research shows that the process of queuing and associated anticipation is more salient in memory than the actual outcome of queuing. A lack of information on progress cancels out the normal perception forming in individual psychology, and what is left is frustration and worry.

“In the case of paid fast-track admissions, the applicants would have a sense of control of the process and know what to expect because of a specific date they are promised. Humans will always choose certainty over uncertainty, and fast-track would be a desirable option for those that can afford it,” Bayindir predicted.

It is clear that some time-hungry students and agents would pay for a fast-track service if the perceived value was that they could make better financial decisions in the long term as a result.

Recent research from digital marketplace ApplyBoard suggested that schools and colleges who do not charge even a basic application fee are already at a disadvantage in conversion stakes. The recent insights publication stated Canadian “programs with a fee over $100 converted applicants into confirmed enrolment at more than twice the rate as programs with no application fee”.

“We should be looking to admit the best students and offer fair access to all “

The report also went on to reveal that the majority of partner institutions in the UK and Australia do not charge an application fee at all and therefore experience significantly lower conversion rates than their partner institutions in Canada and the US.

So if charging an application fee improves conversion and there is already precedent for fast-track services from government and commercial partners, surely universities could adopt this strategy in the near future?

Widening participation and diversity agendas however, mean that pay-for-priority admissions services are likely to be deeply unpopular with universities leaders.

Nick Slade, director of international at the University of Worcester, is one stakeholder against fast-track applications services.

“I believe we should be looking to admit the best students and offer fair access to all considering the investment required,” he told The PIE.

“UK HE is in a privileged position which we shouldn’t take for granted and in order to offer a paid-for premium or super-premium service I believe that there will inevitably be some compromise on service which will not be in the best interests of the students.”

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