“It may be that in a few years’ time, the drama of A-Level results day will have dissipated entirely”by Emran Mian / September 5, 2016 / Leave a comment
University students at their graduation ceremony ©Chris Ison/PA Wire/Press Association Images We’re in the middle of the “clearing” period—the process by which universities fill the places left on their courses. This is the last act in the drama of university admissions, where students who haven’t met the entrance criteria for their chosen university try to find another institution. The trouble is that, by keeping our eyes on UCAS, A-Level results day and the melee that follows, we fail to notice the big changes that are happening offstage. Among young people fairly assured of doing well, the drama came to an end months ago. Many more institutions are making unconditional offers to applicants. Five years ago, only 1 per cent of 18 year olds with A-Levels received the gift of an unconditional offer. In 2015, 8 per cent of them did. This means that, on average, among any group of 12 friends or classmates one of them will be sitting smugly on a guarantee of going to university long before A-Level results come out. This is the consequence of a race among institutions to snap up the young people they see as high quality applicants. Since George Osborne as Chancellor lifted government-imposed caps on student numbers this contest has become sharper; and since the introduction of higher fees the financial rewards from growth in student numbers are higher too. The next stage could be for institutions to bypass UCAS entirely. Universities are already geared up to admit mature, part-time, postgraduate and international students from direct applications. Anecdotally some say that up to a fifth of their total undergraduate intake is already “off-UCAS.” The logic for doing this is clear. When the goal is to compete for students, why go by the same timetable as everyone else? Private providers are already either jumping the queue or waiting to pick up students who did not make it into their first-choice institution. It may be that in a few years’ time, the drama of A-Level results day will have dissipated entirely. These private providers are another part of the changing story about higher education. A 2014 survey commissioned by the government located some 732 “alternative providers” serving somewhere between 245,000 and 295,000 students. Only a fraction of these students—around 50,000—took loans from the government to help pay for their courses. The rest were taking a privately funded and privately provided option—a long way from the public-public ideal of many in the present Labour leadership; and one likely to grow under the government’s plans—making their way through Parliament—to simplify the regulatory environment in higher education. The other big change going on in higher education is back among the applicants. The stock profile of the A-Level student moving on to university needs an update. While the entry rate of young people with A-Levels to university is steady, the entry rate of those with other qualifications is rising. Last year 26 per cent of those admitted to university had BTECs—a vocational qualification—in addition to or instead of A-Levels. By focusing exclusively on A-Level results—which let’s face it most of us do if those are the qualifications we and our friends took at school and which our kids and friends’ kids are taking—we miss out on seeing what is happening with this group of around 100,000 young people. Who they are is important too: they’re the young people who were going to higher education in much lower numbers in the past. For example, while the numbers of young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds with A-Levels going to university has increased by 19 per cent since 2008, the numbers of those going with BTECs has more than doubled. In other words, it is increasingly further education colleges and schools with a broad curriculum including vocational qualifications which are providing the ladders for progression into higher education and a better career rather than, say, grammar schools. We all cling on to an idea of higher education as we knew it. Meanwhile the government’s reforms and legislation, together with changes to what qualifications young people are gaining at school or college and the enterprising behaviour of higher education institutions, will mean that the drama moves ever further from our memories of it.