back to article Students outraged: Computer refuses to do any work for entire week

Computer systems at UCAS - the UK's clearinghouse for university places - has been down since the start of this week, preventing students from confirming their admissions to uni courses online. “We are currently experiencing some technical issues with our IT systems. Students who have already applied will find that they are …

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  1. Justin Stringfellow
    Mushroom

    heads need to roll

    As usual NGOs and Govermental orgs get away with outages that would result in mass sackings in the private sector.

    1. Halfmad

      Re: heads need to roll

      I wonder how many private firms are involved in running it..

      1. John H Woods Silver badge

        Re: heads need to roll

        Halfmad: "I wonder how many private firms are involved in running it"

        That, in itself, is usually not the problem ... it's who those firms have outsourced it to that is usually the issue.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: heads need to roll

        UCAS spent £4.2 million in pay on Information Services last year. This is more than 25% of their total wages bill (£16.1m) so that would make it about 110 of their 425 employees work in Information Services.

        My guess is that there are no private firms involved in running it.

        1. Ben Holmes
          Meh

          Re: heads need to roll

          *cough* Logica *cough*

        2. Don Jefe
          Happy

          Re: heads need to roll

          Nah. It is likely the IT staff are underpaid like everywhere else. A disproportionate amount of the payroll funds likely went to marketing and to alumni relations. That's how it works in the States anyway.

    2. Anonymous Coward 101

      Re: heads need to roll

      "As usual NGOs and Govermental orgs get away with outages that would result in mass sackings in the private sector."

      Would it? I mean, really?

    3. Naughtyhorse

      Re: heads need to roll

      Orly?

      how many bankers got sacked after they too our economy to Monte Carlo and put it all on red?

  2. David Neil
    Facepalm

    Not very bright are they

    Surely if it's offline it's offline and the laces will still be there when it comes online?

    1. keithpeter Silver badge
      Childcatcher

      Re: Not very bright are they

      Surely if it's offline it's offline and the laces will still be there when it comes online?

      Yes, as an end user I assume the information is available in an offline server somewhere and that known good tested backups exist, and that given the volume of information being processed there is some provision for 'rollbacks' &c so that the data is consistent (e.g. if a University has made an offer, the details of the offer will actually be visible to the student when the system is restored).

      The reason for a bit of panic is that Universities set deadlines for acceptance of offers, and families tend to go on holiday soon, especially when Tarquin or Felicity have finished their A levels and left school. It is a stressful time for students, and rationality can tend to go out of the window.

  3. Shagbag

    "technical issues"

    Where I used to work (a multi-national bank), the excuse "technical issue" was a euphamism for a fustercluck.

    eg. a critical process was being run manually at 8:45am and the guy who ran it couldn't get into his PC because the previous night's Windows update had locked his AD account and IT support (in India) wasn't in until 9:30am to unlock it.

    That sort of thing was always officially described as a 'technical problem'.

    1. Getriebe
      Big Brother

      Re: "technical issues"

      Your international bank can only be accused of bad planning. Why not two PCs, or two people to do such a critical task (if it were critical) and support starting at 9:30 at an 'international' bank??

      I have a pescatorial odour aout this

      1. Shagbag

        Re: "technical issues"

        Because management insisted on offshoring to save costs. The same international bank was bought by a major UK clearer a year later, which the shareholders subsequently discovered was full of the crap like what I just described.

      2. Colin Miller

        Re: "technical issues"

        If both machines have auto-install patches enabled, then they'll both get fubar'ed at the same time.

        However, that is a good reason to enable the nag-me-to-install-update option...

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "technical issues"

        You would be surprised what you see behind the curtain at banks. Ancient, creaky systems, multiple thing's installed in multiple different ways to no standard or logic etc

        1. Charles Manning

          It isn't just banks

          Pretty much all organizations have ancient systems and processes keeping their bread and butter operations running.

          One company I deal with that builds electronic stuff has some 386 PCs running MSDOS in their factory. If/when these die they are screwed. The software won't run on newer computers and they don't have the source code any more so can't rewrite the software.

          They are certainly not an isolated case.

      4. teebie

        Re: "technical issues"

        A bank that is bad at planning? I refuse to believe that such a thing could be possible.

  4. Tom 38 Silver badge

    Load of bollocks

    It's not like you even need to use a computer to use UCAS, everything can be handled by mail. It's not even (yet) peak time for UCAS, so downtime to a non essential computer system in the slow period is not news worthy, people don't need to lose jobs.

    The level of entitlement people feel towards IT systems is astonishing, this is not a mission critical system that must be available 24x7x52, and saying that people should be sacked for not making it such, or that we should spend even more money on it is just crazy.

    If the system is still down on August 1st, then sure, maybe a problem. Until then, it's just blah, you can confirm your firm/insurance offers in several ways.

    1. MrXavia

      Re: Load of bollocks

      You forget, students today expect everything to be computer based, I often think they don't even know how to use a pen & paper anymore, and considering the typing skills most show..

      1. Elmer Phud

        Re: Load of bollocks

        Students are told everything is computer-based.

        They don't have an option.

        Computers=less staff=cost savings (theoretically)

    2. An0n C0w4rd

      Re: Load of bollocks

      Did you miss the part where decisions need to be made today about some things but the system won't be available until next week?

      Or how this is *after* exam results are out and therefore the *wrong* time to be doing maintenance? The time to take this kind of service down for weeks worth of maintenance is after term has started but before results are published.

      I strongly suspect this isn't a scheduled or preventative maintenance issue, it's a "someone clucked up and corrupted the database and we're fixing it by hand" issue. Having run systems a decade ago that were handing upwards of 500k transactions an hour and had ~2 hours of scheduled maint. a month, it's not rocket science if you design the software and scale the hardware appropriately.

      1. Tom 38 Silver badge

        Re: Load of bollocks

        Did you miss the part where A level exam results come out on 15th of August (7th in Scotland)?

        1. Fibbles
          Facepalm

          Re: Load of bollocks

          "Did you miss the part where A level exam results come out on 15th of August (7th in Scotland)?"

          Did you miss the part where all places are provisionally awarded before the A-Level results are even known? You seem to be suggesting this doesn't matter because everyone can just use Clearing.

          1. Naughtyhorse

            Re: Load of bollocks

            did you miss school the day they explained the meaning of the word provisional?

    3. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      Headmaster

      Re: Load of bollocks

      "It's not like you even need to use a computer to use UCAS, everything can be handled by mail."

      If someone still knows how it's done by mail.

      There may be arcane bureaucratic rules encoded in a highly impenetrable way in that there down system.

      ARE YOU SURE THEY ARE DOCUMENTED AND WILL PEOPLE BE ABLE TO FOLLOW THEM ALL?

      ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOADBUREAUCRATIC RULE-BASED SYSTEM 15 LEVELS DEEP, WITH ADDED SALIENCE RULES.

    4. Fibbles

      Re: Load of bollocks

      You can send stuff into UCAS by post but then it still needs to be processed. If the system is down, that's just not going to happen. I don't think anybody would begrudge UCAS the occasional bit of downtime but the students are angry because the application system goes down every single year during the most important few months for applications.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
        Trollface

        Re: Load of bollocks

        "system goes down every single year during the most important few months for applications"

        It's like spring break! Hey El Reg, you missed the headline.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Load of bollocks

      "The level of entitlement people feel towards IT systems is astonishing, this is not a mission critical system that must be available 24x7x52,"

      This is a web based system, by definition it is at least expected to be running 24x7 except for planned down time.

      If you worked in my IT department i would have just fired you for such an erroneous and cavalier view.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    i never complain about this, but i currently have to decide what i want to do for the rest of my life, & ucas won't let me

    I'm sure you will find that there will be a "University" somewhere that offers a degree in "Using the Shift Key" which may prepare you for the "rest of you life"

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      She never complains about it, except this one time when she is complaining about it, which is the one time it has happened (presumably) to her COMMAAND not to make assumptions based on daft names, silly selfies and the fact that someone who is not famous has a twitter account but COMMAAND no one really gives a toss if she doesn't yet know if she will be doing fashion and journalism at Trent or media and pop culture at Thames Valley?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      FAIL

      What kind of person ...

      ... picks on an unhappy worried teenager for not typing a tweet to an immaculate standard?

      You sad sour sneery git.

  6. Shasta McNasty
    FAIL

    wtf?

    If the students are so concerned, why don't they phone the admissions department of the University/College and actually tell them that they want to accept an offer?

    Or is that too low tech and actually involve human interaction.

    1. Elmer Phud

      Re: wtf?

      How can they take up the offer if they don't have the results yet?

    2. ItsNotMe
      Thumb Up

      Re: wtf?

      "Or is that too low tech and actually involve human interaction."

      BINGO!! You have just won a prize.

      The little darlings these days have no clue about how to actually TALK to other human beings. If they can't "text" their playmates, or post something one these asinine social networking sites, then they feel they have no way of communicating.

      The world has bred a generation...or more...of complete dullards, who have no idea of how to open their mouths and speak.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: wtf?

        "The world has bred a generation...or more...of complete dullards, who have no idea of how to open their mouths and speak."

        ... But they know how to use the LIKE/upvote button ;p

      2. grommile

        Re: wtf?

        This 36-year-old thinks telephone calls are a terrible substitute for both face-to-face voice communication (where you can use body language and props and point to elements of your surroundings and all that good stuff) and text-based remote communication (where you are not under the synchronization pressures of voice communication).

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: wtf?

          This 36-year-old thinks telephone calls are a terrible substitute for both face-to-face voice communication (where you can use body language and props and point to elements of your surroundings and all that good stuff)

          this 50+ year old agrees 100%

      3. Nanki Poo
        FAIL

        AAAARGH!!!! - Re: wtf?

        I don't believe how bloody sanctimonious some people on here are. Yes, youngsters can make phone calls these days, they actually have more of them than we did at that age (unless you count beepy call-me-up pagers)

        Yes, you could make a phone call. After all, that computer system you got told to rely upon crashing wont cause any more phone calls to UCAS/the university etc will it? Duh! The reason kids have been encouraged to go online is to cut costs. Reckon they've upped the staffing prior to this outage? I doubt it. So welcome to queueing on that 0845 number on your mobile all day (if the switchboard hasn't crashed)

        You couldn't get through in 1993, I doubt it's any easier now.

        That's all.

        nK

    3. Dave the Cat

      Re: wtf?

      "why don't they phone the admissions department of the University/College and actually tell them that they want to accept an offer?"

      Because UCAS has a monopoly on this and they have to follow the correct procedure through UCAS or some jobsworth will tell them they can't go where they want etc.etc. it's all bollocks tbh.

    4. mr.K
      FAIL

      Re: wtf?

      When I was young (I was lucky if I got handful of hot gravel to eat before I was beaten to sleep by a rolled up newspaper) you could do such things. You could do a lot of things back then. You could meet up in person, you could call, the stores kept open if the power went out etc etc.

      I have a healthy distrust of computers because I know they can fail, and if I am not handed some physical proof that I have done my part, I am calling each piece in the chain to at least get a verbal confirmation that whatever I am putting through is propagating through the system. It is a bloody pain I tell you, and I am of course a bloody pain to them. To get hold of anyone that know that isn't on maternity leave, sick, vacation, just didn't show, on a fashionable late lunch, is still working there, etc takes a while at each office I call. Sometimes I meet up in person. Well, I try. They do no longer have a place that is designed to meet their clients. But you usually get in, and after an hour you can wrangle out a piece of paper with a signature that states that you have sent in the form.

      This is when the system is working. I imagine that a system that isn't even tuned to handle one paranoid geek, well, one geek is worth ten ordinary paranoids, but still, such a system I imagine would not be easy to reach on phone when it fails across the board. So, neh, young people are like all people, useless, but I can't blame them on this.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: wtf?

      " If the students are so concerned, why don't they phone the admissions department of the University/College "

      Last time I phoned one of the buggers I lost interest in a) the course I wanted to enrol on, and b) life in general after about five minutes of "press one for blah, press 397 for bleh, press..."

  7. TeeCee Gold badge
    Coat

    Have you got in?

    Computer says: "......".

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The problem is ...

    .. that UCAS uses freshly qualified graduates to handle their IT.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The real problem is...

    Too many people from the lower classes are still applying. Torries upped university fees t attempt to deter the common rabble but it hasn't worked. Next step? Block admissions to all those who don't have parents on the board of directors, or other high profile links.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The real problem is...

      The Tories where just carrying on a system implemented by Labour who introduced University fees.

      > Block admissions to all those who don't have parents on the board of directors, or other high profile links.

      There are, on average, 150,000 students at each University. There are about 2000 companies traded on the London Stock Exchange. If each of these companies had 50 high profile directors that would make about 100,000 high profile directors in total. Higher paid people tend to have fewer children so I'll assume each of these directors has 2 children. Those children aren't all going to be of University age so if we assume a twenty year age range (reflecting the 45 to 65 age range of directors) then about 3 in 10 of the children will be of University age. This gives a total of 60,000 children. This would barely provide enough students for a single years intake in one University. What are the other 186 Universities going to do?

      1. John Brookes
        Stop

        Re: The real problem is...

        Well done for carrying on the maths, even after it became obvious your base figure is nonsense. 150,000 students per Uni..... 187 Unis..... 28 million Uni students?

        1. Neverwas

          Re: The real problem is...

          Oh dear, you may have scarred for life a poor dear who has never had a red cross on homework and never been told "that's wrong".

      2. Thomas Whipp

        Re: The real problem is...

        The entire population of York is about 160k - thats a city, albeit a small one!

        It wouldnt suprise me if some universities had student bodies that size in larger cities, but its certainly not the average (which with a normal distribution woudl imply some universities with 250k+ students)

        Another quick check is that 186 * 150k = 27.9M, UK population is about 70M, which gives a rough figure of say 1.5-2.0M in each year group at the lower end of the age scale. With 100% attendance of 18-22 year olds and some mature students you could get the total University population to maybe 9-10M but I believe the current rate is nearer 50% of 18-21 year olds, which makes a more sensible fag packet number 4-5M.

        That said, your point about the percentage of places that could theoretically be filled by priviledged people is fair - the point of privildege is that its a naturally small group.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: The real problem is...

          Misplaced zero, 15,000.

      3. Lamont Cranston
        Mushroom

        Re: "100,000 high profile directors"

        Pass the assault rifle, the herd needs thinning...

    2. Tom 38 Silver badge

      Re: The real problem is...

      The problem is too many people go to university. It should be just the top, brightest 40-50% who go to university, regardless of wealth or ability to pay. This is skewed by the richer parents paying the way for their less able spawn, which leads to a mis-representation of the classes at universities.

      This mis-representation is seen by certain types as an outrage to equality. Tony Blair definitely saw it like that, and made it his aim to have every one go to university (whilst simultaneously crippling them in debt - hmm...)

      A much better system would be to make university fees solely dependent upon academic success or lack thereof. If you're smart enough, full ride. If you're actually quite thick and still want to go, £50,000 a year please. Of course, this could never happen, as the traditional leftist view is that the rich can buy an education for their children, and therefore the grades achieved by them are not comparable to more 'worthy' candidates.

      1. Thomas Whipp

        Re: The real problem is...

        you do realise that at present we have 30-40% attendance today.... you're therefore proposing an increase of circa 30-40% against current student numbers!

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11438140

        If you want to talk about free university eduction for "the brightest" you're probably looking at a number of more like 10% which would be circa 1960s - lets just assume for a second that might be politically acceptable. But then you have the issue of how do you measure that because as multiple studies show academic achievement is highly corrolated to parents income and the ability to buy a house near a good school. Therefore, restricting spaces at university inherently impacts lower income familys much more.

      2. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

        Re: The real problem is... @Tom 38

        You've described something not too dissililar to the old grant system.

        University places were restricted; A-Levels gave good idea of who was capable (fitted to the normal distribution curve, rather than skewed to thehigher grades), so University could offer places to students with good A-Level results.

        For students who got offers, the family income was assessed (taking into account a number of factors including whether other childern from the family were at Uni. already), and a grant depending on income was awarded. Students from poor families got 100% grant, those from rich families got little or no grant with a sliding scale for those in between. The grant was arranged such that any student taking the piss, and not trying to pass the course could have been made to pay it back.

        Thus we had a quite fair system, with those students who needed it most getting complete support. I got about 50% grant, and my parents made the rest up (my grant paid for the accommodation in full, and I got the rest in installments from my Dad). Of course, all students got their tuition fees paid automatically.

        By keeping the number of places restricted so there was competition, a University place was valued by most students, rather than being taken as a right. I feel that most of my friends 35 years ago all felt privileged to be at University, and few of them wasted it.

        And at the end, because there were fewer degrees awarded, they were valued by employers.

        Politians still believe this is the case, even though pumping too many mediocre students through the system has devalued a degree to the point where 3 years in the job market rather than a degree will result in a higher paid job. This makes a mockery of degree students being able to pay back their loan and pay more tax.

        The crass stupidity in assuming that if you increase the number of degrees awarded, that the country will end up with a more valuable workforce, rather than the reality of just having people with meaningless degrees not relevent to the work they end up doing is one of the classic errors from a left-wing political mindset.

        Kids are not equal, and never will be even if you try to say they are (as in the failed Comprehensive system). The best educational leveler IMHO was the Grammar School system for kids with the right academic abillity regardless of background, complemented with streamed secondary schools to act as a catch-net for late achievers, followed by a means-tested grant system to pay for higher education consisting of University for academic achievers and good vocational courses in technical and art colleges coupled with apprenticeship schemes. With this, you end up with a balanced workforce. This is what was put in place in the 1950's and 60's, and probably produced the best education system ever seen in this country.

        I admit that it singles out people who have the chance for higher education early, but you have to do this to get the best from young people. No system is perfect, but I believe that the current system is so broken as to not be fit for purpose.

      3. Naughtyhorse

        Re: The real problem is...

        couple of points....

        40%-50%... ARE YOU FUCKING INSANE???

        10%-15% at most. Sadly making it dependent on academic success results in the massive over representation of public schools - their grades are by and large, better.... which is kinda the problem you are complaining about.

        And another thing, having every tom dick and harry do meeja studies for 3 years was a wizard wheeze conjured up by John fecking Major's gang of reprobates. Prime reason being, if they were at uni, then wouldn't be counted as out of work. (the primary motivator of the major years was massaging the figures)

        A degree is a conditional good (neener-neener if you will) it's worth absolutely fuck all if everyone has one. Which was something that was utterly lost on 'the boy who ran away from the circus to join a firm of accountants' AND his successor who though the privileged life he lead was his just deserts, and because god loved him (and had a special job for him in the middle east) No matter how egalitarian it sounds we cant all be in the top 10%

        1. Tom 38 Silver badge

          Re: The real problem is...

          40%-50%... ARE YOU FUCKING INSANE???

          I pulled the stats out of my arse. Tony Blair's target was 100% in FE/HE, so I halved that.

          1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

            Re: The real problem is...

            50% would realistically be the upper limit, at least for HE leading to a degree.

            A few years ago, I happened to note two stories on Radio 4 on the same day. One was that 50% of young people achieved 2 A-C grade A-Levels, and the other was that the government wanted 50% of young people to go on to University.

            The way I looked at it in a tongue-in-cheek way, was that they could eliminate University altogether, and just award degrees to those who achieved 2 good A-levels, as that would be what was necessary to get both figures to agree!

            It just reinforced my belief that having a degree structure has to be elitist in order to both work and be useful.

  10. ecofeco Silver badge
    Meh

    Even if sent by mail

    The system probably still uses the same processing servers.

  11. Lamont Cranston
    Windows

    Remember when the next 3 years felt like the rest of your life?

    No, me neither. Bloody kids.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    They have plenty of time to sort it

    I used to work there (then called UCCA) helping with clearing in August in the early seventies. Their system is pretty straightforward, and apart from putting it all online, pretty much the same principles apply to the inputs and outputs and how decisions are made (I'm now handling some of these course applications decisions at one of the Universities students are applying to). It had to be straightforward for it to be handled by the kind of mainframe available then. They basically run a batch system with a cycle period of one year. I remember opening the mailed clearing applications written on punched cards, and taking a batch of a couple of thousand of these to be sorted by an operator using electromechanical offline peripheral machinery every morning, a job which took a couple of hours. That and handling the telephones etc and lots of other manual bureaucracy. You didn't use a computer for a task as trivial as sorting a couple of thousand 80byte records then.

    1. teebie

      Re: They have plenty of time to sort it

      "UCCA"

      Ooh, I think my mum had biught one of your plants.

  13. Wulfy
    FAIL

    Clueless

    Past run in's with UCAS lead me to believe they haven't got a clue and this once again reinforces that opinion. They couldn't organise a piss up in a brewery

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Clueless

      @Wulfy That helpfully puts them on an even playing field with most university it managers though.

  14. Stevie

    Bah!

    I thought UCAS was that outfit that hired retired cops to solve all the crimes young coppers were too lazy, bent or stupid to solve themselves.

    Learn summat every day.

  15. MattArmstrong

    @Shagbag. Windows updates will not lock your account out! Investigate for the proper explaination to the problem.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Over a week,,,

    ...to find and fix a hardware problem? What kind of equipment are they running? Vacuum tubes?

    1. teebie

      Re: Over a week,,,

      For historical reasons they run the power to the mainframe through a series of old christmas tree lights. One average it takes them a week to find which bulb is causing the problem.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Facepalm

    Experiencing some technical issues?

    We are currently experiencing some technical issues with our IT systems"

    We fired all our IT staff and the unpaid intern lost the backups ...

    1. kain preacher

      Re: Experiencing some technical issues?

      Or since we fired every one there was sacked, there was no one left to lock out fired admins.

  18. Rimram
    Linux

    Ex Insider view

    Frankly most of the conjecture on posted about this is nonsense.

    UCAS has been making the education sector aware of the risk it faces with its IT systems for the past 24 months at least.

    Bad decisions by the former Exec team, appaling management of the IT department from 2000 until the start of 2012 resulted in an over staffed and under skilled IT team maintaining. poorly designed and poorly implemented systems that are unable to cope with the demands of the modern day applicant and HEI.

    Over the past 18 months UCAS has been working to overhaul the whole shebang and announced at the HEI Admissions conference this year that it would be delivering its A Level results day service from AWS/Azure rather than its current flawed on premise model.

    It also announced its intent to Outsource a significant chunk of its IT in 2014..

    The fact of the matter is this is a relatively quiet time of year and whilst this outage is unfortunate its at a time that has little or no impact. UCAS will invariably extend any deadlines that were forthcoming so as not to disadvantage applicants.

    As long as the systems are up and stable from mid July onwards it won't matter.

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