In recent years, universities have had to walk a difficult line. On the one hand they are, or should be, upholders of academic standards and virtues – ethical, philosophical and methodological guardians; sanctuaries for truth seekers; and seats of learning both practical and abstract. On the other, they are commercial entities in a fiercely competitive environment and at the mercy of market forces. These twin imperatives do not always coexist happily.
A review of the university admissions system, announced by the Office for Students, has arisen from their concern about the extent to which universities now hand out unconditional offers to students applying to universities prior to sitting their A levels. Their prevalence has mushroomed in recent years, and I am glad to see that my own misgivings appear to be shared by Education Secretary Damian Hinds.
This is a world of perverse incentives and unintended consequences. For example, those students receiving such offers – secure in the knowledge that a place is in the bag – must deal with the temptation to believe that their work has been done. Of course, taking their foot off the pedal at this point may see their standards slip and ability to cope at university diminished, and the risk of a CV tainted by unimpressive A levels.
So, who benefits? On the face of it universities, who typically find themselves in hock for new facilities and desperate to secure the student pound. However, if September then sees them accommodating students who can’t keep up or, worse, drop out, the picture looks rather different. University lecturers, I am sure, would rather get on with teaching their subjects than deal with stragglers. Certainly, there is no long-term upside to any student finding out the hard way that the pace and level, or even the subject itself, are not for them. And pity the poor school teachers to whom it falls, at the sharp end of the teaching year, to keep potentially demotivated students going when they have more legitimate demands on their time.
At Bedales, I am pleased to say, both students and teachers are protected to an extent from such risks. Approximately half of our 6.2 (upper sixth) students apply to university in advance of results, and of these around a quarter will typically then not take up offers for the following autumn. Rather, many of our students who want to go to university will apply having received their results, taking a gap year, and consequently benefitting from time to consider their options after experiencing new things and growing into themselves a little more. All of this, I would suggest, results in more mature young people who are better able to make suitable choices, as well as 6.2 classes in which focus is retained to the benefit of all. One would have thought that this state of affairs would appeal to universities too, if their principal concern in admissions lay in getting the right students onto the right courses. Another consequence of basing university applications on actual - rather than predicted – A level grades is a further decline in the value of the GCSE qualification, the relevance of which is being questioned by many educationalists and others.
At Bedales we are not persuaded that university is the right thing for every student, even if their grades suggest it. Work, apprenticeships and other possibilities are all firmly on the agenda of our Professional Guidance staff, and I would like to see this better reflected in the policy landscape. If serious government investment in secondary and tertiary vocational education were to mean a contraction in university provision, I don’t think I would lose much sleep. This is not to denigrate the work of universities – on the contrary, I would simply like to see them do what I believe they do best – equip students with appropriate skills, uphold academic standards and virtues, be havens for truth seekers; and excel as seats of learning.