Trauma of the 3am bid for a university place

August 18, 1995

There must be a better entrance system, says concerned parent Brian Everett.

I am a parent of a teenager whose results came yesterday. For many A-level students August 17 will have brought good news and will have guaranteed the hoped-for place at a particular institution. But no matter how excellent a student your son or daughter has been, and no matter how often their school said not to worry, as a parent you do. No matter how small the risk of your teenager not making the necessary grades, parents still suffer that nagging doubt that results may be below par, so forcing them to join that frantic rush to find a university place.

Does access to higher education have to be so fraught? Looking back over 30 years to my own experience, having gone through the fast stream of a northern grammar school I already knew I had a guaranteed place at Liverpool as I had taken my A levels the previous year. I had no worries. In my year off the conveyor belt I could contemplate my future with a degree of leisure which these days seems extraordinary.

What I face now, as the fretting and no doubt irritating parent seems to be both inefficient and unnecessary in comparison to what happened even ten years ago. Surely there is a better way for our young people to move from secondary to tertiary education. Have we learned nothing over the years that would help us handle the process more rationally and without the frenetic activity that now seems endemic in the system?

So while parents and students sweat it out, the rest of the education world engages in the annual debate. We have come to expect the annual knee-jerk reaction of the right wing claiming that examining standards have fallen because of the higher number of As, Bs and Cs this year - or, if the better grades are fewer in number, that examination standards are too rigorous and in any case are a silly way of assessing the potential of young people.

We expect the examination boards to claim on Radio 4 that the marking system is carefully controlled and reflects real attainment. We expect a plethora of higher education advertising (which started in national newspapers in July) which says "come to our university, we've got places". But at this time the parents of young people trying to get a university place will not be asking clever questions about why institutions need to advertise if there is such high demand. Parents no longer bother about the debate, because they are simply too preoccupied with their objective of getting access, finding a place, and becoming higher education consumers.

What a way to run a higher education system. Parents, once rational, become desperate pushers. They drive their kids across the country from university to university trying to find a place or plead their case that A-level results would have been better if granny had not died or if son/daughter had not broken a leg on the school skiing trip.

There must be many apocryphal stories, such as the parent seen parked outside a northern redbrick university at 3am waiting for the doors to open so they could ask for a place.

One can only hope the prospective undergraduates come up with their offered grades. If not, it is the charnel house, sorry, clearing house. But even then there will be accommodation to sort out, familiarisation trips to a strange city, a bank account to be opened, a grant to try for (hope springs eternal) and, oh yes, a loan to apply for. Economic necessity defeats principles again. All this by mid September. Some may say it is exciting, but it is a desperate way to organise access into third-level education.

So what do we parents do, just cope with it for this year and re-join the annual debate in 1996 when our personal trauma is over, or begin to conceive new and even radical ideas? Colleagues who have recently been through the "student experience" believe new ideas are essential.

Brian Everett is assistant general secretary, North of England and Northern Ireland, of the Association of University Teachers. The view expressed is a personal one.

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