Classroom practice - University challenge: how to advise wisely

17th October 2014 at 01:00
It's a decision that can change the course of a young life, so make sure your students have all the facts about higher education

Few educational experiences are more mythologised than university. Young minds often harbour more fiction than fact on all aspects of higher education, from the educational and social to the financial - in large part owing to misrepresentations of university life in films, television and even from their peers.

This makes October, the month when the university application process begins in earnest, a particularly tricky time in schools. Whether and where a student applies can often depend on the opinion of those they trust the most: their teachers. This means you have a responsibility to cut through the misinformation and present the reality. That is no easy task.

The process is made all the more difficult by the unprecedented level of change that universities are experiencing. Many criticisms once levelled at the higher education sector are simply no longer true. The rise in tuition fees has been a significant shift, but lots of other changes have taken place recently.

First, there is the issue of competition. Teachers are regularly faced with students who claim that they won't get in because of the fierce competition for places. But universities are now more accessible than ever. Controls on the number of students that individual universities can admit have been progressively removed over the past three years. In 2015, the cap will be lifted altogether and universities will seek to recruit as many students as they can.

Other key complaints, particularly after the rise in fees, relate to out-of-date facilities and a lack of contact teaching time. With regard to the former, an amenities arms race has resulted in billions of pounds being spent on improving and upgrading facilities. Libraries, laboratories, lecture theatres, halls of residence, sports facilities and study areas across the country have all had major makeovers.

As for the level of contact time, universities have placed a far greater priority on teaching in recent years. In-service training and the dissemination of good practice, within and between universities, is now commonplace. As well as an increase in face-to-face experience, more attention is being given to helping students study more productively. The use of technology to enhance learning - an area where many universities used to lag behind schools - is also improving.

Despite these advances, it's not all good news. It is still early days for the market-led reforms in higher education and the shock of change is still working its way through the system.

The first students to pay pound;9,000 a year in tuition fees have yet to graduate. Their perceptions of the value of a university education will be interesting to track, not least to gauge whether work-study options, such as apprenticeships, become more attractive in the future.

In the midst of all this uncertainty, what should prospective students and their teachers keep in mind when considering higher education in 2015?

It is more than a route into employment

Never underestimate the value of a university education. It is true that a degree can enhance employment and earning prospects, but studying at university is also a worthwhile end in itself. Nothing beats the satisfaction of grappling with a subject at an advanced level and attaining mastery of it. It is an old-fashioned idea, perhaps, but is one that prospective students should understand.

Be realistic with choices

Teachers should advise students to keep their options open and make realistic Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) choices. The fact that universities can admit as many students as they like doesn't mean they will. Some have expanded in recent times but competition remains fierce for popular places and subjects.

Even so, there is an important upside to the lifting of the cap: students in 2015 are more likely to get an offer than ever before. Many universities will be less worried about drawing a distinction between students with the all-important ABB grades or higher at A-level and those without. Combinations of qualifications beyond A-levels are also likely to become more desirable for admissions purposes.

League tables are not the only guide

Don't let yourself or your students be influenced by league tables alone. The diversity of the UK's higher education system in is a great advantage. Although league tables tell one story (just as they do in schools), they don't capture the richness of what is on offer.

It is unlikely that any government minister could name all 24 universities in the Russell Group, yet membership is widely considered to be the hallmark of quality. Remember that excellent higher education can be found across the sector.

Don't worry about A-level changes

Students shouldn't be too disturbed by the changes to A-levels. The system is undoubtedly in flux and will remain so for a while as the reforms instigated by former education secretary Michael Gove are implemented. Yet as the events of this year have demonstrated, many universities are prepared to give students a place even if they do not achieve the grades listed in their offer.

Despite what some people may think, this does not indicate a dumbing-down scandal. Universities recognise that a reasonable spread of grades can equip a student for advanced study. That remains the case even when what they ask for is higher than a student's actual results since grades are designed, among other things, to act as a filter when there are too many students and not enough places.

Students who do better than expected, meanwhile, always have the chance to use the adjustment process after results are published in the summer. More and more applicants are using their ability to "trade up" to another university if they exceed the terms of their firm offer. As competition increases, it is not inconceivable that it will be a students' market when A-level results come out, as universities offer tempting opportunities to change places.

Unconditional offers are not a free pass

Stay focused on studying. Heightened competition between universities for top-performing candidates could also bring with it a wider use of unconditional offers. Being offered a university place ahead of A-level results might seem like a "get out of jail free" card. But just because exam results won't affect a student's place at university, it doesn't mean that they are not important. They could affect the ability to secure work placements or places on training schemes after graduation.

Ensure students understand all the options

The final piece of advice might seem strange coming from a university vice-chancellor: university is not the only option at age 18, nor is the "traditional" first degree the end of higher education. In fact, it might be only the beginning, as tomorrow's citizens seek to upgrade their skills and qualifications on a lifelong basis.

Sir David Bell is vice-chancellor at the University of Reading. He was formerly Ofsted's chief inspector of schools and permanent secretary at the Department for Education

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