Introducing online portfolio-based applications to higher education courses

How can Universities, and other education providers, make better selection decisions on course applicants? In 2015 a record number of 592,000 applications were made, representing a 2% increase on the previous year (The Telegraph, 2015). At the same time, Universities are under enormous pressure to improve graduate employment statistics to demonstrate serious student investment through tuition fees. As Edward Peck, Nottingham Trent University, states “…if we are saying to students that coming to university will improve your job prospects, then we have to deliver that.”

Could a portfolio-based application system be the answer for visual arts subjects ?

The pressure to create employable graduates is transforming University admission, careers and marketing services. Not only is it therefore important to teach well and produce high degree grades, but it is also imperative that Universities align their educational services. Therefore, course promotion (marketing) must attract candidates with an interest in a course or vocation, recruitment teams (admissions) must select those best suited to succeed on the course, and careers teams (employability) must be able to support the academic courses to produce graduates who have the right skills to be successful graduates. Failure at any stage may result in the student dropping out, achieving poor grades or having a low chance of graduate employment.

HE Admissions processes

Admissions teams typically make offers to a pre-defined number of candidates based on examination performance, UCAS contextual statements and interview. This is time-consuming for a large number of academic and administrative staff, whilst being challenging to choose between broadly similar applications. Meanwhile, subject specific differences do occur to ensure the right skills are being presented below the traditional model. These include multiple-mini interviews in health-based courses (eg: University of Leeds), or paper portfolios in arts-based courses. Can technology, and specifically online portfolios, help admissions tutors choose the right candidates ?

Online portfolio-based applications

One example is from The University of the Arts, London, who have recently introduced a custom development from the PebblePad portfolio tool which will allow applicants to create their own online portfolios to supplement their UCAS application. Their application includes a feed of the data from UCAS (personal details, exam results, contextual statement, hobbies, etc), in addition to a presentational portfolio of their creative work. Such work may include photographs of artwork or examples of craft and textile work, dance imagery and animation videos. The portfolio includes space for descriptions and reflective statements.


For reviewers, all applicant portfolios are filtered through to a secure, dashboard. Individual reviewers can access only the portfolios relating to their course. From here, they can view the portfolio and related UCAS information, rate the application against defined criteria, then choose to acceptrejectinvite for interview, recommend a different course, or move them to a ‘clearing’ pool. For some courses requiring a second reviewer, the same workflow and options are available.


More information can be found in this brief introduction for Applications – HowPortfolioApplicationsWork.


Of course, the application is only the start of the learning journey at University. However, this approach illustrates how traditional selection practices can utilise the power and flexibility of a portfolio tool. It can also establish a ‘portfolio’ mindset at the earliest stage and reinforce critical skills, such as reflection, action planning and using evidence. This can be the foundation for more focused activities throughout the programme, but has both solved an administrative headache and delivered transformative change to new learners..