A “challenging set of results”, a politician might say. Others might suggest that heads should roll. What is clear is that if there were any sort of league table that measured how well prepared school-leavers are for university, there’d be some catch-up to do.
I’m referring to the results of the 2017 Survey of University Admissions Officers. The survey was conducted through 81 telephone interviews with a selection of British universities, including half of all the high to medium tariff universities.
Asked to choose from a list of 15 different options which ones they thought impact on a student’s ability to thrive at university, almost nine in 10 (89 per cent) university admissions officers cited “not being able to think and learn independently”.
This was followed by “unable to manage their own time or workloads” (88 per cent). Seven in 10 suggested that students do not appreciate what their course will involve, while 52 per cent felt that they were “unable to carry out extended writing”; and the same number “unable to remember facts, possessing a ‘Google It’ mentality”.
This view chimes with other data presenting “Generation Z”, and which seem to suggest that while they are incredibly demanding, many are also very needy and much more reliant – perhaps on parents, teachers and lecturers – than previous generations. And, of course, Google.
Worryingly, almost half of university admissions officers, when asked “do you think sixth-formers are sufficiently prepared for a successful transition from school to university?”, said “no”. This was despite the fact that almost three-quarters (73 per cent) believe that students “put more effort in to considering their university choices before they apply than they did in the past”.
So what is going on? Why is the most widely connected generation in the history of humankind seemingly so ill-prepared for university social and intellectual life?
The missing link appears to be a student’s own initiative and independent-mindedness. As well as being the most digitally engaged generation, this one is also the most externally assessed and measured, tested and managed at every stage of their young lives.
Has this produced a generation of young people unable to think for themselves? The importance of performance in exams and league tables often appears to be given far greater priority than learning how to challenge facts. This, of course, is wholly reinforced through social media, where “facts” are presented in small, digestible bites, and swallowed whole.
I don’t think that we can blame it all on social media or testing, though. The survey also posed one simple question to admissions officers: “Do you think different exam systems (over and above individual teachers or school) develop different attitudes towards learning and work among students?”
The answer was a resounding “yes”.
Asked to give a score out of five for how well a particular qualification prepares a student to thrive at university, 55 per cent of admissions officers gave the International Baccalaureate a top score of five, compared with just 15 per cent who said the same of A levels. Their reasoning? The IB is a broader education programme, developing a wide range of qualities that students need to succeed in life beyond school.
Jeremy Lewis is head of school at ACS Egham, an international school in Surrey. The Admissions Officers Survey was commissioned by ACS International Schools and IBSCA (International Baccalaureate Schools and Colleges Association).