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Allocating course places

No fairer way to do it!

Max Warlond has looked at our enrolment process. 

I have been with U3A since 2010.  I attend three courses, and last year I became a volunteer and conducted two short courses – Speaking with Confidence and Fit for Retirement.  Then I was elected to the 2012 Committee of Management last November and my involvement in this, although brief, has already given me a much better appreciation of how U3A functions.


Along the way I have heard quite a few complaints about the way the course allocation process is conducted, mainly from people who have missed out on something.  I have been lucky and managed to get into my choices, so I didn’t share their feelings.  However, when I heard that this process is extremely labour-intensive, takes three days to complete, and generates complaints afterwards, it got me thinking that surely it could be better done on a computer.  I have an engineering/computing background, so I volunteered to join the group of people who did the allocating in January and see if I could help. It was a great experience.  I learnt so much not only about the process but about the people in Melbourne U3A.


Now, having been there and done it, I can definitely say that there is NOT a better way of doing it than the way it is currently done.  To write a program to do what these people do is not feasible. Let me explain.


As you will recall, everyone’s application form lists up to six course choices in order of preference. In the first round of the process, all first preference applications are sorted under the courses selected.  That takes a while because there were 576 applications for 1006 places in this year’s courses.


Next, within each of those courses the applications are sorted by date.  Each application has been date stamped. Also those applicants who are U3A volunteers have their applications stamped with a ‘Volunteer’ stamp. The volunteers go to top, and then all the others by date – except that Full Members take precedence over Associate Members.  These applications are then entered on the respective class rolls on the data base.  At the same time, volunteers mark the application slips and place them in the stamped addressed envelopes that (hopefully) you have all sent in with your applications – these get posted back to you to let you know about your enrolments.


This process is then repeated for second preferences, then third, and so on until every applicant has gained entry to three courses (or fewer if they have not chosen sufficient alternatives). 

Whenever a class limit is reached (which occurs even in round one for most language courses and the more popular courses such as Movies of Merit) a waiting list is started and names are added, so that if someone pulls out of a course, the person on the top of the waiting list will be given the chance to join the class.


You may think a computer could do this easily;  it is just working to a set of rules – you are either in or out.  Well, that is what I thought too, UNTIL I saw the efforts those people made to accommodate everybody.  Maybe a member for many years had been in hospital and not able to get her application form in early enough – how could they get her into just one of the courses she had asked for?  Maybe someone had missed out on both first and second choices – perhaps they could be put ahead of someone else’s second choice if that member had been lucky with three choices?


So many decisions like this came into play toward the end of the selection rounds. The group tried so hard to get everybody into as many of their chosen courses as possible. That just wouldn’t happen if it were done on a computer. 


Computers work to rules (I know because I have programmed them and more often than not set the rules) but we at U3A are working with people, and compassion and understanding take precedence over rules and regulations (within reason of course and on a case by case basis).


Yes mistakes can happen, and we need to perhaps devise a process for dealing with them, but I went away from that exercise with a whole new understanding of what U3A is all about.  You don’t know how lucky you are to belong to this particular group of U3A.  These people really care about the outcomes and I hope this never changes.


This is my view anyway! 


Max Warlond,  April 2012