Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

Reflections of a Freshman, Part 1: the Applicant

Posted by Jock Coats on December 21st, 2011

So, it’s basically a year since I got my heart set on doing a degree and applied.  In fact, it was on the occasion of last year’s office Christmas do that I asked my then department director to do me a reference.  I had promised to keep a sort of a diary noting my “student experience” as things progressed.  Now that my first semester is complete, I ought to record that experience.

The first thing to say is that the application process was not entirely straightforward, and not entirely suited to non-traditional applicants.  It had been a quarter of a century since I was last in formal education, so I certainly didn’t have any teachers who might vouch for me in my UCAS reference.  So I dropped a note to the admissions tutor for the faculties my course covered to ask if it ought to be an employer, or perhaps one of my many academic friends who could vouch for my keenness and aptitude better than, say, a line manager.  But no, it had to be an employer.

Now that’s okay when you work for the university for which you are applying and your boss is the academically respected university librarian, and Helen clearly did a fantastic job of her reference as it got me a place.  But imagine for a second asking a boss at a struggling private sector firm in an economic downturn, ten months before you might want to arrange time off to study: “Of course you can have a reference, but maybe you’d prefer to leave next week to prepare for university if you don’t see your long term future with us.”

Similarly with waiting for a decision.  I think it took eight weeks for a decision in my case.  Now that again is probably not too bad if you are a sixth former in a school where everyone is waiting for the same news and will be in education right until two months before they pack their bags for university.  But again, if you are a mature student, planning on transforming your life in a big way in nine month’s time to study, two months seems like a long time out of that planning period to have to wait to hear.  Again, fortunately for me living and working at the university this was no more than a little niggle, and not helped by the imposition at the same time of our OBIS restructuring which made everything a little more uncertain, but for others planning a big change this delay could be important.

So anyway, once I had had and responded to the decision, the next step was to work out whether I actually wanted to go part time (or apply for my new job as part time in my case owing to the restructure).  I just so happened, a short while before my interview for the new job, to look into what sort of student loan financing I might get if I wanted and whether it would allow me to go part time.  It was purely fortuitous that I tried before the end of May as the Student Loan Company said that it wanted applications by then, but I don’t ever remember having been told that, so it was just lucky that I looked when I did.

I had been led to believe the SLC was bureaucratic and inefficient and so, largely, did it prove to be, though not half as bad as the worst nightmare stories I’d heard.  Commercial banks can have money from loan applications in your account in fifteen minutes.  SLC wants four months to be “sure” of getting you the money before you need it at the beginning of the new academic year.  I had trouble because their website is not clear about what evidence you do and don’t need to send (again especially if you are a mature student basing everything on your own, rather than parents’ or partner’s incomes).

By the August Bank Holiday I still had not heard, then discovered they were waiting for my Birth Certificate (why, when your UCAS form has your NI number on it I don’t understand).  Suffice to say that a 44 year old birth certificate is often difficult to find.  Last time I saw it was when I started work here and it was wanted for my membership of the pension scheme.  Fortunately one area of government that seems quite efficient is the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages who got a copy of my certificate, at a cost, to me, next day.  But I still had to send it twice to SLC since they deemed the accompanying form wrong the first time (without explaining what was actually wrong with it).  Still, once that was solved, the money was quick to flow, so not half as bad as those I had heard about not getting their loans till the May after they had started and so on.

Anyway, not an entirely smooth ride, made easier for me as an employee of the university already, but a few bits and pieces perhaps worth considering about application processes and so on.  In my next post I want to look at the “post acceptance” interactions with the university before actually stepping into a lecture theatre