Friday 20 August 2010

The Battle for Britain’s University Places

Hundreds of thousands of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland received their A-levels and AS-levels results on Thursday. More university places are on offer this year, but the numbers are capped and universities face fines if they breach these limits.

Yesterday, we discussed the new A* grade, introduced this year to help universities differentiate between the very best candidates.

To get the new grade, a student has to score an A overall, plus at least 90% in each paper in the second year of the course. Yesterday, we reported that about 8% of all students’ papers have been given an A*. A total of 8.3% of A-levels taken by girls were awarded the new A* grade, compared with 7.9% of those from boys.

Students from independent schools were proportionately more likely to get an A*. They provided 30% of all A* grades awarded, despite making up only 14% of entries. Candidates from comprehensive schools, which are responsible for 43% of A-level entries, gained 30% of the A* grades awarded. Further education and sixth-form colleges, which enter 30% of candidates, saw their students given 20% of all A*s awarded.

We are pleased to say that the highest percentage of A*s was awarded in further maths at 29.9%. 17.2% of maths candidates achieved the grade. The numbers taking maths continued to rise with an extra 4,526 entries, and an extra 1,209 for further maths. It is pleasing to see this trend after a marked fall back earlier in the decade.

In Scotland, the overall pass rate for Highers was up slightly, to 74.6%, creating a new record. Northern Ireland fared the best of the regions, with 35.7% of papers being given an A or A*, 9.3% the A*.

So why, despite these record successes, are many candidates facing disappointment over university places?

Applications this year are up by 12% on last year's record level, with the numbers increased by those re-applying after not finding a place last year.

Many universities are warning that the number of places available through the ‘Clearing System’ will be severely restricted. Last year almost 48,000 students found places through this system, which matches available university places to students who did not get the grades they needed for their first choices. Half of Scotland's universities have already said their courses are full.

Universities Minister David Willetts congratulated students on their results and said that those who did not get the offer of a university place had other good options.

"There are more university places than ever before and already 380,000 applicants have got confirmed places at university. For those who have sadly not done as well they hoped, there are places available in clearing.

"Of course, university is not the only route into well-paid and fulfilling work. That is why we are also investing so much in Further Education and 50,000 extra high-quality apprenticeships."

Some may accuse Willetts of having his head in the sand. We have heard stories of students with three A* grades without any offers of a university place. The president of the National Union of Students (NUS) Aaron Porter said: "With youth unemployment pushing one million, savage education funding cuts and arbitrary limits on places, the government is at risk of imposing poverty of opportunity on a generation of young people facing a very uncertain future."

The biggest problem this year is clearly the recession. With jobs scarcer, the competition for university places automatically heats up. But there are other factors at work too.

The system has become skewed by awarding points for A-Level grades, implying that an A-Level in media studies is as valuable or useful as the same grade in maths or a science. The fact that these softer subjects are attracting more teachers only exacerbates the trend.

The private sector and the best state schools have shown that it is possible to maintain good standards, while keeping the demand for trendy or less demanding subjects to a low level. Securing a place for your child at one of these schools and the rules for the child’s education are clear: traditional subject choices, respected by the top universities, rigorously pursued. It is a recipe that has sadly disappeared in too many places.

Our school-leavers deserve better than the mess they have found themselves in this year. What will become of our goals of greater social mobility when subjects such as German and physics thrive in the independent sector but are dwindling elsewhere? The knock-on effect is the closure of the university departments in these subject areas, and this has already begun.

If you are still unsure about where or whether to go to university, it’s essential to get some high-quality, targeted information, advice and guidance. Speak to your teachers and to the universities themselves. Don’t rush into a course that isn’t suitable for you. You may end up leaving university early without a degree, but with the debt.

Good luck.

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