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Thoughts on today’s results for those on their way to higher education – By Nick Hillman

  • 17 August 2023
  • By Nick Hillman

1. Congratulations. You’ve done it. Your schooling has been disrupted in unprecedented ways and you’ve been on the rough end of many disruptive shifts: most obviously, COVID and strikes but also a big crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. Yet you’ve come out the other end and are on the cusp of the next stage of your life. You are about to find out whether the old saying that ‘schooldays are the best years of your life’ is correct. The chances – given the educational challenges of recent times – are that this is less likely to be true for this year’s school leavers than for earlier age groups, so hopefully you can be optimistic about the future.

2. Don’t believe the hype. You will hear lots of talking heads on the media claim that the overwhelming majority of people have received the grades they need to go to their first-choice place. This is good news. Universities have often been flexible and the admissions system has, overall, worked well. In the main, UCAS just works. But the claim about the overwhelming majority of people applying to higher education getting their first-choice place is based on a very strange definition of ‘first choice’. It refers to an institution that has offered someone a place that has been accepted – if, say, your four favourite choices on your UCAS form all neglected to offer you a place, then your ‘first choice’ might actually refer to your fifth choice. (In 2022, the University of Oxford had around 15,000 applications from people in the UK but made offers to under 3,000 of them.) So claiming 80% or so of applicants have got their first-choice places is a bit of spin; it does not actually mean eight-in-10 people gave got what was their preferred option when they filled in their UCAS form last autumn / winter.

3. This is the austerity generation. People who turned 18 in the past year are likely to have started school in 2011 of thereabouts, just as austerity was getting going. In other words, their entire schooling has been affected by it. The chart from the Institute for Fiscal Studies below shows that the big increases to primary spending had passed by the time they were at primary school and spending on secondary schooling actually fell during their time there. Higher education spending is now falling fast in real terms too, as inflation eats away at the value of tuition fees and other income, so the bad news is your higher education might be underfunded as well. When politicians refuse to raise tuition fees, it might sound superficially good but it means you will have much less spent on your higher education than other recent cohorts and your education is therefore likely to suffer.

4. Predictions are less important. There are expected to be more people whose results are some distance below what their teachers expected them to achieve than usual. We saw during COVID that teachers often overpredict what their pupils will achieve (and for good reasons) but their expectations are thought to be more out of kilter with the actual outcomes than usual this year because the predictions did not reflect the reality that results have gone back in England to somewhere close to pre-COVID (2019) levels. In other words, teachers’ predictions do not fully reflect the grade deflation we have seen and this could lead to a lot of upset among students as well as staff, who have used their professional judgement. This shift matters because in the worst COVID-affected years, 2020 and 2021, teachers’ predictions were more important than ever before; now they are less relevant.

5. It is not all bad news. Universities want to fill their places. You may have read that institutions now lose money on educating UK students (as opposed to international students) and that this has consequences for admissions. That is true and there are various pressures on the most selective universities – those with the most demand – this year. But if you are running a university, you lose a lot more money if you leave empty a place that you had expected to fill than if you recruit someone to it. Remember, universities are generally educational charities and their mission is to educate people which they want to do in droves. So there is almost certainly a place for you, even if it is not necessarily where you first had your heart set upon.

6. Act swiftly if you know what you want. There is a consensus that people who know clearly what they want to do but who perhaps haven’t got the grades for their top option(s) should act swiftly. Places in Clearing, for example, will often get snapped up. So if you know what you want to do, get in quick.

7. Act more slowly if you don’t. But if you do not know what you want to do, then taking your time might be wise. You can have a year out, earn some money, go travelling, do all the things you weren’t able to do when you were at school or college and then reapply next year (though that is expected to be another competitive year too).

8. Don’t forget to fix some accommodation. Some towns and cities with universities have a shortage of student beds. This is not a brand new problem but it is a growing one. And it is not true of every town or city, but it is true of many. Yet your choice of accommodation really matters as it will directly affect the quality of your time as a student. So if you have locked on a place, don’t sit back but get on to your accommodation choice. And then choose your accommodation wisely. I have written about this elsewhere so will restrict myself to just one thought: what people think is important before they go to university is often rather different to what those same people think is important after they have enrolled. If it were me, I would be less interested in living somewhere posh or plush than living somewhere that (in order of priority): a) has good social spaces, meaning it is relatively easy to meet others; b) leaves me with some cash to go out; c) is close to (or on) campus or has good transport links; and d) has good wifi.

9. The cost-of-living crisis is affecting students the same as everyone else. Students are being affected by cost-of-living to such a degree that, for the first time ever according to the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey, more than half of full-time students have been doing paid employment during term-time. The most important urgent thing that people expecting to enrol in higher education need to do now is to apply for student support and, unless they are from a household with a low income, talk to their parents about the expected parental support, perhaps using the excellent MoneySavingExpert information on all this. (Parents: We are talking big sums in many instances but it is how the system works, so it is not your children’s fault!)

10. Exam accuracy. I grew up in a home that would fill up with huge envelopes full of exam scripts each summer, as both my parents were teachers and marked public exams. It is a reminder to me that marking is a human process, even in today’s electronic age and humans are fallible and have different opinions. So at HEPI, we have long been considering the issue of whether exam grades are an accurate reflection not just of someone’s underlying ability but also of their actual performance in the exam hall. In short: is the grade you get trustworthy enough for the weight that will be applied to it by university admissions officers and future employers? We have a notably more hierarchical university system than many other countries, so fine differences in grades can make a big difference. You can follow this debate, which we have added to this week with a piece by Mary Curnock Cook which looks at the positives in the system we have, here.

1 comment

  1. Manajemen says:

    The impact of reduced spending on education is mentioned. How can students advocate for better funding and resources within the education system, and what strategies can they employ to navigate potential underfunding during their higher education journey?

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