Need to know: University admissions

Today is deadline day for applications for the majority of undergraduate degree courses. Here is your essential briefing on the key trends in the university admissions system your pupils have to navigate.

Eleanor Busby

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Universities have recently been in the spotlight over high tuition fees and vice-chancellor pay.

But these controversies are unlikely to deter thousands of sixth-formers sending off their Ucas applications today.

For many students, higher education is still seen as the next step following school or college.

How much will my sixth formers have to pay to go university?

University tuition fees in England are currently £9,250 per year – but this could be reviewed.  

During last year’s election, Labour received a great deal of support from younger voters after the party promised to get rid of tuition fees.

And in October, Theresa May promised a "major review of university funding and student finance".

She also announced that the government would raise the income threshold that triggers student loan repayments from £21,000 to £25,000 – saving students about £8,000 on average.

Just this week, Ms May’s former chief of staff, Nick Timothy, accused the former education secretary Justine Greening of stalling proposals to reduce tuition fees.

Mr Timothy’s piece – which came after the prime minster replaced Ms Greening with Damian Hinds – suggests that higher education fees could be reviewed following the reshuffle.  

Is the cost of university actually putting sixth-formers off?

It would appear not. Eighteen-year-olds in England were last year more likely to go to university than ever before, Ucas figures revealed. One in three school leavers were placed on degree courses through Ucas.

More poorer students are also going to university, the data revealed, with the entry rate for the most disadvantaged last year rising by 0.8 percentage points to 19.6 per cent.

These increases came amid an overall fall in the numbers going to university, which was fuelled in part by a drop in older students and fewer coming to study in the UK from the European Union.

The rises suggest that school leavers are not being put off by the debate on high tuition fees. Many still see it as the best route to take after school.

In fact, a new study today reveals that two of the most influential factors for sixth-formers when choosing a university were average starting salaries after graduation and graduate job opportunities.

Are schools giving too much focus to higher education?

The government has been keen to push alternative routes – like apprenticeships – for young people. But it would seem that many schools focus on getting sixth formers to apply for university.

A poll earlier this month found that less than half of school leavers said they had received information and guidance from a careers adviser at their school or college.

And twice as many students were aware of Ucas compared to the apprenticeship route, the survey by the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) found.

Suzie Webb, director of education and development at the AAT, argued this month that information and advice was “lacking” and biased towards the university route.

She said: “While continued academia will prove the right choice for many school leavers, there is certainly more that can be done to ensure they are presented with all the options available.”

How has university admissions changed in recent years?

When applying to universities, students used to submit their AS level grades – which were an indicator of what their A-level results might be.

Some university admissions departments, including Cambridge, used these when making offers.

But under reforms being phased in across all subjects between 2015 and 2019, AS levels in England no longer count towards the full A level, which means the process has had to change.

The decoupling of AS levels – which last year led to a 42 per cent drop in entries – has meant that universities are having to look for other things before making an offer.

A-level predicted grades will be considered – and in some cases, universities might look at GCSE grades more closely.  

Will an extended project qualification help?

Extended project qualifications (EPQs), a self-directed project which carries the same Ucas points as an AS level, are becoming increasingly popular with schools – especially since the demise of the AS.

Entries for the project – which is cheaper for schools to run than an AS level – have risen by 40 per cent since 2012. And just last year, there was a 12.4 per cent rise in entries.

Many universities welcome the qualification as “a means of demonstrating breadth of study” – and in some cases, universities make alternative offers to students who complete it. 

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Eleanor Busby

Eleanor Busby is a reporter at TES 

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