The mess at the heart of higher education

Every year sees the ritual repeat itself. Thousands of teenagers receive their A level results in August, with the obligatory photos of young, attractive (and probably posh) girls leaping in the air at what are undoubtedly a clutch of A and A* grades. Meanwhile, the curmudgeons all line up to complain about how it was much easier in their day, and how all young people are brainless hoodies who don’t deserve anything. It is undoubtedly true that more pupils are getting As than ever before. What is also true is that ever rising grades are symptomatic of the rat race that the further and higher education system has become.

The Government has told universities that, from next year, they must cut by 8% the number of places available to students achieving less than two As and a B, whilst being able to offer an unlimited places to those achieving AAB or better. The thinktank The Higher Education Institute has argued that this will damage social mobility because a disproportionate number of students achieving AAB or better come from private schools. What makes this even less fair is that studies have shown that a student from a state school achieving BBB in their A levels gets on average an equivalent final university grade to someone from a private or grammar school background gaining AAB. This pressure from government removes the capacity of universities to take into account things like educational background and solidifies the distortions in A level results that exist between the state and private sector as equally talented state school students find places available to them cut.

A similar alarming trend is the fact that private schools, despite educating only 6.5% of children in the country, get 30% of the A* grades awarded at A level. Since an A* grade is fast becoming a ticket to elite university entrance (Cambridge, UCL, Imperial, but thankfully not Oxford) it seems that the educational apartheid that exists in the secondary school system is to be further replicated in our universities.

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At the other end of the scale, the absence of real alternatives to a university degree as a means of social advancement is disadvantaging those who are not academically suited to a degree course, but would benefit more from vocational work. For years students were fed the message that you needed a degree to get on in life, and my (comprehensive) school frequently cited the average graduate lifetime earnings premium to us (an average which hides how graduates from certain universities and courses earned far more than others, and which is likely to be collapsing as more and more students go to university). Barely any provision was made for those who didn’t want to go to university in terms of career advice. Apprenticeships are massively oversubscribed, BT has 100 applicants for every place and Network Rail had 8000 applicants for a mere 200 places. That many of the apprenticeship schemes are little more than excuses for bosses to hire cheap labour doesn’t help matters, and probably goes towards explaining the 65% retention rate for apprenticeships as a whole. Surrounded by an unemployment rate of nearly a million for those aged 16-24 (i.e. 20% of the total), it’s unsurprising that opportunities for young people remain bleak. The logical response for them appears to be to go to university and hope that something comes their way later. Hence this year we had 673,570 applicants competing for 479,000 university places, and 185,000 students who didn’t make their offers fighting for 29,000 places through clearing. Successive governments have failed to offer real opportunities to young people.

What then, is the solution? Firstly, the government must properly fund apprenticeship schemes, ban employers from paying apprentices less than the minimum wage, and create a legal obligation for employers to provide apprentices with meaningful work and a pathway to full time employment. It must send a signal that the implicit hierarchy which places university graduates as necessarily superior to non-graduates is a false one, and simply results in graduates doing jobs which do not require a degree, as well as devaluing those whose talents are primarily practical and vocational rather than academic. Those who are academically able ought to be encouraged, and the government must stop idolising elite universities as the be all and end all of education. Plans to cut places for those getting less than AAB should be scrapped. Universities need to acknowledge that A level grades are not necessarily entirely accurate reflections of talent, and that state school pupils with lower grades can equal or even outperform their privately educated peers at university. The current system is essentially one of winner takes all, with all the perks for the attendees of elite universities and schools, while everyone else fights over fewer places, fewer resources and fewer opportunities.