This morning, hundreds of thousands of anxious teenagers woke up to three or four letters which determined the next three years of their lives. But it wasn’t as many as usual, so universities have had to open their doors that little bit wider – and I think we need to be thinking – what implications is this going to have on those of us at university, those of us who have been, and those of us who want to go?
What’s the story?
This year is the first time that students getting the results of their A Levels didn’t have the opportunity to take AS levels the year before – instead, the whole two year course was examined in one sitting at the end. Overall there were 0.7% less A* or A grades in thirteen of the new-style subjects (Source: BBC), and 2% fewer places were awarded at universities this year (Source: Sky). The amount of secondary school pupils who wanted to go on to further education was this year at its lowest since 2009, with only 74 percent wanting to go on to university after school (Source: Independent).
The exam board in the UK have helpfully commented that it is not the exams that are harder this year, but the level of academic prowess of the teenagers that it is lower, which seems slightly harsh. The result, however, is that a lot of 17 and 18 year olds didn’t quite make the grades they were supposed to, which has the knock-on effect of opening up a lot more places to clearing than usual, as universities have had to lower their standards to fill their necessary quota of places.
Why is this relevant?
I know it might seem insensitive to focus on this on the day that people have been viciously injured by yet another supermarket terrorist in Barcelona, but I thought I had focused enough on that subject for the time being.
The reasons and excuses behind the drop in university applications are many and varied. Sky news suggests that the negative impact of Brexit is partly to blame, as the number of EU students that want to study in the UK has fallen by 5% (Source: Sky News). This is understandable, as the instability that Brexit is giving people in the UK is bad enough, but imagine the effect it would have on people from Europe wanting to come into the country.
The other reason that people are turning to as an explanation is the change to several popular bursary schemes across government funding. The changes mean that many people who might have been able to afford university before now no longer have the same options. But there might be something more behind this – I wonder how many people were lulled by a false sense of security by Labours pledge to cancel tuition fees?
A more positive reason to focus on is the surge in numbers of people applying to do an apprenticeship or traineeship as an alternative to a degree. The number more than doubled between 2006 to 2016, from 175,000 to 500,000, and is expected to rise further this year (Source: Sky News). Although this might not be great for universities, it actually shows a brilliant transformation in our society, in my humble opinion, because it demonstrates that people are no longer being forced into university to raise school statistics. Instead of choosing to go to university, as is the perceived ‘norm’, and only being able to do a ‘soft course’ option because of the limitations placed upon them by their academics, they are taking life into their own hands and choosing to apply themselves practically in a way that will be far more beneficial to them in the future.
So what does this mean for current university students? Well the most obvious problem is that universities, due to less applicants, have had to lower their entrance qualifications in order to fill all the places they offered. Why they don’t just take less undergraduates and have smaller years is beyond me, but I can guarantee that it has something to do with money. The problem is that almost all of the Russell Group Universities have opened the doors to clearing on their courses, meaning that courses that previously would have had applicants with A levels at AAB this year are accepting students with grades as low as BBC. Hopefully this will just be a bad year, but if it carries on and universities don’t adjust accordingly, people who had to work hard to get into a university course are going to be joined by people who didn’t get nearly the same grades. I’m not saying that they won’t deserve it at the end, but there is a slight danger for those at university at the moment that the perception of their courses might be lowered slightly by those who were able to get onto it with much lower grades. Will the standard of the courses have to be lowered as well?
On the bright side, this year is the best on record for equality of successful applicants – Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister, was quoted saying ‘the number of placed offers for people from disadvantaged backgrounds are at record levels’. So at least that’s something to be glad about.
So, although this might be a bit more boring than sensational news about terrorism, I think it actually sparks a lot more issues closer to home. Is the high standard of British Universities going to keep falling, or is this just a blip? Does this mean in the future we will be going abroad to study? What about Brexit? Will universities adjust in time to recover? And lastly, will this prompt universities to purge themselves of the so-called ‘soft’ courses, and drive more people to apprenticeships instead? I personally hope so. After all, university really isn’t for everyone.