A timely look under the bonnet

A-level results day and clearing offered insights into the gremlins, glitches and successes of the new fees and funding system

August 22, 2013

While A-level students found out their grades last week, the rest of us learned a thing or two about attitudes to higher education and how the new system in England is working.

Here are a few lessons from results day and clearing:

Universities have no problem being red in tooth and claw. The competition for ABB students was fierce, with many of the most selective institutions stung into action by under-recruitment last year. Russell Group universities were to be found advertising with a simple message: if you’ve got ABB, we want you. Some of the results were striking: the University of Exeter increased its intake by 600, a number that is likely to pose challenges internally as well as to rival institutions.

Universities also had no problem applying different rules to different “markets”: a candidate hoping to study at a Scottish institution told how interest in him waned when he revealed he was Scottish rather than English, and as such would not pay higher fees but would count towards the institution’s recruitment cap.

Students with BBB are now almost untouchable for some institutions, even if there are good reasons to take them

There are technical glitches to be worked through in the new clearing system. Mechanisms such as “adjustment” (which allows students with better-than-expected grades to “trade up”) require quick decisions. However, there were reports of universities failing to release students fast enough when they sought places elsewhere. This was probably down to cock-up rather than conspiracy, but still caused problems for some.

A more serious “glitch” is the cliff edge faced by students who just miss out on ABB grades. Students with BBB are now almost untouchable for some institutions, even if there are good reasons to take them. It is difficult to marry the strict ABB cut-off with the mantra (chanted by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, as much as anyone) that institutions should be making more of contextual data in admissions.

Size matters as far as the graduate premium is concerned. One of the recurring questions in the results day commentary was whether a university degree is “still worth it”. For those taking a brass-tacks approach, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills released research suggesting that the graduate premium is £200,000 – doubling overnight the figure previously cited by BIS.

Languages are in big trouble. This is hardly news, but the results hammered home the point. A-level entries in French and German fell by 10 per cent and 11 per cent, respectively, on a year ago. It was also reported that the number of UK universities offering modern languages degrees fell from 105 to 62 between 2000 and 2013. The British Academy has been campaigning on this issue, but as a matter of national strategic concern it should be getting much more attention than it is.

Finally, on a positive note, we learned that demand for higher education remains strong –stronger than is suggested by the tone of much of the debate about universities.

At the start of this week, 425,720 students had places, up from 394,980 at the same point last year and more even than at this stage in 2011. After all the upheaval of recent years, this was far from a foregone conclusion.


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