Mary Curnock Cook, CEO of UCAS, was on The Student Room to answer your questions about UCAS and the university application processMary Curnock Cook, CEO of UCAS, and Philip Blaker, head of university admissions at UCAS, joined us for a webchat to answer your questions about UCAS and the university admissions process.


They tackled all kinds of questions, from how stable UCAS Track will be this year through to what's being done about UCAS' dodgy hold music.

Here's our pick of the questions and answers from the webchat. You can also read the whole of our webchat with Mary Curnock Cook and Philip Blaker on the forums


L4L4 asked:

"One of the things you hear complaints about every year is the UCAS website (mainly Track) crashing. What have you done to prevent/limit the crashes?"

Philip Blaker replied:
Last year we introduced a new version of Track for the start of A-level results day that used cloud technology to provide a highly scalable solution. This was a great success, but we did have problems when we reverted to our older technology to allow Clearing choices at 5pm.

This year we've completely changed Track and now it's always in the cloud. This means we're very confident that Track will work throughout the whole day. On top of this we've also moved many of our systems for unis into the cloud to provide them with a highly scalable and resilient solution.
ghowell13 asked:

"I've got a question about UCAS Clearing. I know vacancies are published at 00:01 on 15 August, but to allow time for preparation and planning can they be published 24 hours in advance of results day? This would allow people to gather phone numbers/course details and would save some stress and panic on results day!

Philip Blaker replied:
Clearing is obviously a hot topic at the moment. We know that people can worry about being in Clearing unnecessarily and this can add to the overall stress of the period. When thinking about the times when services become available we have to balance many considerations. Overall we feel that releasing Clearing vacancies on results days, even though this is early in the morning, gives the best balance between the availability of information and preventing people panicking.

We review the timings for the release of services each year and we might well make a change in future years.
Kitty Pimms asked:

"How do you see the lowering of the AAB threshold for uncapped places to ABB for this UCAS cycle affecting universities in clearing? How have UCAS been working with universities over the previous two cycles to try to mitigate the damage of such rapidly changing policies?"

Mary Curnock Cook replied:
Lots of things affect the number of places that unis have available in Clearing, including the ABB threshold and the student number controls. Lowering the threshold to ABB means that more courses and more universities can recruit without a control although obviously physical capacity is an issue for accommodation/lectures/teachers/labs etc. As last year, we expect there to be thousands of courses with vacancies in Clearing.
Hercule Poirot asked:

"The UCAS hold music is unbearable. Could we see some more upbeat songs in the future? Maybe some jazz, or just anything with a lot of soul?"

Mary Curnock Cook replied:
Hello Hercule. We appreciate everyone's taste in music is different and we try to update our playlists to reflect suggestions. If you have any requests for Clearing week, why not tweet them to us @ucas_online before 5pm on Tuesday 13 August. And don't worry, we promise to keep our contact centre manager away from the CD player - he's a Status Quo fan...
Potally_Tissed asked:

"As I understand it, should an applicant miss their offer but a priority remark then results in their grades improving such that they do meet the conditions of the offer after all, the university is not obliged to hold a place open for them and can essentially ignore the result of the remark.

"I appreciate that universities have a difficult balancing act when it comes to managing their intake numbers, but this policy seems to me to be wholly in favour of the university and very unfair on applicants."

Philip Blaker replied:
You've hit the nail on the head by recognising that unis face difficult decisions when balancing their student numbers. The important thing is to get the re-mark underway through your school or college as quickly as possible and let your choices know what you're doing. Communication is critical.

Our guidance to unis is that there is firm commitment to keep a place open if revised results are available by 31 August. Thereafter we guide them to the good practice of offering a deferred place, though this is a decision that each must make locally.
HarryMWilliams asked:

"Doesn't it make sense that students should apply to universities after receiving their results? This would surely make both the job of admissions tutors easier, by not having to rely on sketchy and wholly subjective predicted grades, and make the entire process much simpler for students."


Mary Curnock Cook replied:
You've put your finger on a question that does the rounds of university and education folk roughly once every year! When we did a big consultation last year, everyone thought that a post-results application system seemed the logical place to go, but it was also acknowledged that it would squeeze some really important decision making into a short window (not to mention the processing of hundreds of thousands of applications).

Actually, we already have a post results application system - it's called 'Clearing'. When UCAS (or UCCA as it was then) was set up this was a mop up process at the end of the cycle to match applicants without a place with unis that had vacancies. Fifty years on, Clearing is a major application route - we placed 55,000 students through Clearing last year - and a major recruitment exercise for a wide range of unis and colleges.

The answer to this debate is to have both processes. For some applicants it works best to know they have an offer and an incentive to work hard to meet their conditional grade offers. For others, they can wait till they have their grades and then apply knowing that they meet the course requirements.
Echelon asked:

"What does UCAS think of The Student Room?"

Mary Curnock Cook replied:
We think it's great! Students need a go-to place to discuss things and TSR is it.

kingdoo asked:

"I am thinking of applying to UEA, Leicester, Keele, Southampton and Swansea. If I do apply in September does it increase my chances of gaining an offer? Or should I wait until after the Oxbridge candidates are supposed to apply in October?"

Mary Curnock Cook replied:
Apart from courses that have an October deadline (medicine, dentistry, vet, Oxbridge), all other courses have a 15 Jan deadline. If you apply before 15 Jan you will be considered on an equal basis regardless of what date you press the button.
MS Miz asked:

"Why can you not get a medicine place through Clearing?"

Philip Blaker replied:
The thing about medicine is that it's a very competitive course and it's highly unlikely that any places are left by the start of Clearing.

We advise all applicants interested in studying medicine to apply well in advance of the 15 October deadline.
gomti asked:

"Once I receive my unconditional offer from my uni, how much time do I have before I accept it?"

Philip Blaker replied:
This depends on when you apply and when the offer is made. You will be given your reply deadline when you log into Track, and the new version of Track gives you a useful calendar countdown.
nicole.elkins asked:

"I'm currently filling out my UCAS form for 2014, and would like to ask a question about the education section. When submitting GCSE (and A-level) grades, do you have to include retakes? I have certificates for both the original exams and the retakes. I also intend to retake the whole of one of my AS subjects. What do I put down for that?"

Philip Blaker replied:
We advise everyone to enter all their qualifications in the education section of their application. This gives chosen unis the best picture of you as a potential student.

If you are currently retaking one of your AS subjects, you can add this as a pending qualification, with no grade needed.
PQ asked:
"Given that UCAS is both a charity and a limited company and the outcry whenever high pay to charity CEOs is made public do you feel justified in the salary you are paid? Also how does UCAS Media fit in with the charitable aims of UCAS? "Delivering admissions services that help applicants make the right choices, for the right reasons and with the right outcomes" must be difficult to manage if part of your income is generated through promoting some universities over others?"
Hot topic! My salary is set by the board of UCAS through the remuneration committee. I'm not defensive about it and the article relates mostly to charities that fundraise and are part of the Disasters Emergency Committee.

UCAS is a charity but we do not fundraise and we're not funded by government. We cover our costs through application fees, university fees and commercial sales. All profits from the commercial arm (of which I am also managing director) are gift-aided back to the charity and help us fund improvements to our services without passing the cost onto applicants.

Trustees of the charity are also on the board of the commercial company so our sales activities are transparent. We operate strict guidelines to ensure that our commercial business doesn't impinge on the integrity of the admissions service.
Read the whole of our webchat with Mary Curnock Cook and Philip Blaker on the forums