Like Charlie Bucket with his golden ticket, A-level students who get grades of ABB or better this Thursday (15 August) will find themselves in a sweet position.
Yes, the fees are much higher than they were two years ago, but here are half a dozen reasons why 2013 is a good year to be a university applicant - if you get the grades:
- Many universities were badly stung by under-recruitment last year. Applications fell with the introduction of pound;9,000 fees and universities were cautious about making offers because of stiff fines that were imposed for over-recruitment. The resulting dip in student numbers meant that universities lost income, while the government unexpectedly saved money. This year, applications are back up and the fines have been relaxed, allowing universities to be bolder in making offers.
- The government has lowered the A-level grade threshold at which students are removed from the number controls which restrict university places. Last year universities were allowed to recruit as many students as they liked as long as they had grades of at least AAB at A level. This year the threshold has been lowered to ABB, so anyone with these grades will be in high demand - both from universities that traditionally recruit at this level (which will have to compete for their entire student intake), and from those looking to expand to earn extra fee income.
- The under-recruitment last year, including among members of the Russell Group elite, made it clear that if universities do not take the competitive environment seriously, they will suffer the consequences. As a result, expect them to pay much closer attention to the student experience - benefiting this year's intake.
- The pound;27,000 that most students will pay in fees over a three-year course is a lot - so much, in fact, that many may never pay it off. But the terms of student-loan repayment mean that this is a perfectly acceptable outcome. Students won't pay anything until they earn pound;21,000, and any outstanding sum will be written off after 30 years. This may be bad news for the national balance sheet in 2043, but if students (and parents) get to grips with the detail, there's no reason why anyone should be put off university for fear that they won't be able to pay off the debt.
- As the Times Higher Education World University Rankings show, our universities are still among the best in the world, second best only to those in the US, where fees can be in the region of $40,000. And if pound;9,000 sounds a lot for a year's tuition, spare a thought for the international students who will be sharing the same lecture hall - some will be paying fees of over pound;30,000 a year.
- By the time this year's A-level students graduate, the economy may actually be back on its feet. Those who started university three, four or five years ago probably hoped that they would be able to sit out the storm and emerge into a resurgent job market. It wasn't to be, but by 2017 it may actually have happened.
If it's a good year for applicants with top grades, however, those who fall just below the ABB threshold may find it harder than ever to get into the most selective universities, which will have almost no "quota" for students falling outside of the ABB+ pool.
As for the universities themselves, there remains huge uncertainty as the new system continues to bed-in, but there are also reasons to be positive: the signs are that last year's dip in applications was a one-year blip, and for all the warnings that pound;9,000 fees would introduce a new, terrifying breed of student consumer, there's no sign yet that lecture halls are filling up with Veruca Salt-types screaming: "I want it now!"
John Gill is editor of Times Higher Education