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Students with non-UK university offers are being kept in the dark about what the new A-Level system means for their futures

  • 1 April 2020
  • By David Hawkins

This blog was kindly contributed by David Hawkins, Director and Founder at The University Guys.

In the midst of the current global crisis, students in their final years at secondary school will necessarily be concerned about what this disruption means for their onward progression, to university, apprenticeships or employment. It was reassuring to hear Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, state that:

My priority now is to ensure no young person faces a barrier when it comes to moving onto the next stage of their lives – whether that’s further or higher education, an apprenticeship or a job.

However, for one group of students – those holding university offers at universities outside the UK – no guidance has yet been forthcoming.

Firm numbers on the numbers of students are hard to find, as most countries will collect data on the citizenship of a student, and not where they received their education. The best guess is that we are talking about a few thousand students, based on the three reliable pieces of data we have:

  1. The Independent Schools Council survey from 2019, which shows that 5% of their leavers last year took a place at a non-UK university, a total of 1,714 students;
  2. The US Open Doors Report, which states that 5,472 British passport holders (not necessarily all UK-educated) were studying in the US on an undergraduate degree; and
  3. The UNESCO Global Flow of Tertiary-Level Students data, which shows 36,224 UK students (of all levels) studying beyond the UK.

Whatever the exact figure, it is a significant number of students.

Now the normal reaction might be that if it is being sorted for students entering UK universities, then surely it is the same for other countries? Here, however, assumptions can be dangerous.

In the same way that we have a sport called football, and other countries have sports called football, but the rules, strategies and timings between Association, American, Gaelic and Australian football are different, universities take many forms the world over. Organisations such as the International Association for College Admission Counseling and the Council of International Schools exist to help provide school advisers with the information they need to support students making university applications globally, where entry requirements, timelines and indeed the whole admissions systems work on fundamentally different principles.

Two examples are illustrative:

  1. students with A-Levels wanting to study in Germany will struggle to be eligible to enter public universities if they don’t have four A-Levels in subject combinations which may seem odd to a British audience; and nd
  2. on the other hand, students who wish to study in many parts of Scandinavia have to take a gap-year due to how late A-Levels come out in comparison to national exams there.

On the world stage, the way the UK runs university entrance is quite unusual – admissions systems based very heavily on performance in terminal exams with results coming out close to the course start date are quite rare globally.

In the current climate, it is therefore concerning that the thousands of UK-educated students with the intention to study at a non-UK university for 2020 entry are falling between many stools at present: it seems to be no one’s responsibility to provide information to them about how the new assessment arrangements may impact them. For those of us who advise students on international applications, we have some fears that the removal of exams could make students ineligible to study in certain countries.

The biggest issue right now is communication: it’s not UCAS’s job to provide information to this group of students, nor is it Universities UK’s – and the Department for Education (DfE) has (to date) overlooked it. That’s the issue that needs solving.

It would be particularly helpful if in statements from ministers, DfE, UUK, UCAS and others on this issue, they would all add the prefix ‘UK’ ahead of every time they refer to ‘universities’. Stating that ‘University representatives have already confirmed that they expect universities to be flexible and do all they can to support students and ensure they can progress to higher education’, is not strictly true – has outreach been done to NUFFIC in the Netherlands, or to any of the major receiving universities for British students such as UCLA in the USA, IE University or the many universities in Hong Kong?

It may be tempting to see this group of students as a privileged group able to afford the fees to study overseas, but students on the Sutton Trust US programme or European Economic Area (EEA) citizens living in the UK who choose to study at a cheaper option outside the UK, will also be impacted here. In the longer run, it would be great if government removed the financial barriers to non-UK study by allowing students to take their student finance beyond the UK (mirroring what happens currently on Jersey and Guernsey, a policy which has proven to actually save money given the cheaper cost of tuition in many countries), but for now more information needs to be provided to the students currently impacted.

If not handled well, with ministerial level dialogue to peers in receiving countries and clear communication provided to students and families, we could see a decent number of students not being able to take up places at universities overseas, who may also have not made provision to stay in the UK by applying to UCAS in good time.

There is thus a potentially significant impact where students educated in the UK (British or otherwise) have offers from international universities – and who may have paid considerable sums and invested considerable time to work towards these – could end up not being able to take up these places because of unintended consequences of decisions taken in good faith, but which only consider the needs of students entering UK universities.

To reassure students, families, schools and advisers, the Department for Education, perhaps working with UCAS, need to issue some guidance, as well as to be more precise about which universities they are referring to in their statements. International advisers, and admissions officers from around the world, are ready to support with this when necessary.

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