A fine old mess we've got into

August 18, 1995

The clearing season is moving into full swing. A-level results are out, people are looking for places.

Institutions have geared themselves up for clearing - additional phone lines are staffed; inquiry centres opened; admissions tutors and administrators urgently processing previous applications to establish how many applicants they need. The advertisements have already started to appear. Newspapers are already full of "advertorials" on how to find a place and selling advertising space like it was going out of fashion.

For applicants it is a frantic time. Those who have made their grades want confirmation, and information about the institution, the course, housing arrangements and so on. Those who did not are trying to find a place, making a major decision in the next few days about what and where they will study full time for the next three or four years.

And everyone is worried about money. Students do not know how they will survive. Thousands will take up places without knowing - or having time to think through - how they will cope personally, socially or financially. Institutions do not know how they are going to support the new students' education over the next three to four years.

What we do know is that with the efficiency gains, and the non-funding of pay awards and incremental drift, the actual reduction in the unit of resource per student will amount to around 25 per cent in real terms over the next three years. And this is on top of the 40 per cent reduction we have already experienced between 1987 and 1994. Moreover, to achieve the Government's 40 per cent age participation plan involved taking an extra 90,000 full-time students by the end of this century, instead of the 40,000 extra suggested in their present forecast.

There is no indication at all of how these additional students are to be supported. The famous demographic dip which in the early 1980s was used to justify extensive cuts in funding for higher education, has been shown to be irrelevant. The number of 18-year-olds will rise to a local high in January 1999, when there will be approximately 720,000, 100,000 more than at present. The Government plans to take no account of the increasing participation of people over the age of 18 in both full- and part-time higher education.

But this is also the time of year to reflect on the lunacies of the present applications system. I know there is a working group looking at the applications procedures, and no doubt it will report in due time. But we are one of the few countries left with such a ridiculous system. There is no possible justification for the amount of effort expended in the previous academic year, offering endless places to people who may or may not make the grades, who may or may not decide to come on the course, and who may or may not defer for a year. And then answering thousands of inquiries, all searching for the right course and the right institution, or any course in any institution.

The current admissions system serves no one's interest, least of all the students'. It is our sector's responsibility. It is our applications system, and our applications policies which militate against an effective reform of the much-discredited A-level curriculum.

This time of year succeeds in producing enormous stress for students, their families, and the sector as a whole. It is a time when the real issues facing higher education are deflected, when valuable resources are spent on unnecessary advertising. Much of this mess is of our own making. We should sort it out properly, once and for all.

Mike Fitzgerald is vice chancellor of Thames Valley University.

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