The university challenge

20th August 1999 at 01:00
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FOR MANY students yesterday's A-level results will have confirmed their place at university this autumn. But for thousands of others who have failed to reach the required grades, or perhaps exceeded their expectations and are contemplating upgrading their university or course, the scramble has just begun.

This year more than 400,000 candidates are chasing about 330,000 places. Around 50,000 of these are expected eventually to scrape places through the clearing system. As this will leave perhaps 75,000 facing disappointment, these are stressful times for teenagers.

For students of all abilities, choosing the right options can be critical in setting the right course for their future career. For many - perhaps most - finding the right course, in the right institution, can be hard. Even obtaining a place on a popular course at a good university is no guarantee of subsequent success. A degree in a traditional subject such as English or history - both heavily oversubscribed and demanding high

A- level grades to gain entry - is no longer an automatic ticket to employment. Just 55 per cent of English graduates, according to the most recent survey, can expect to obtain full-time employment within six months of graduation.

Many such graduates, of course, go on to do postgraduate courses such as teaching - still seen as one of the most secure routes to a stable career. It's surely no accident that some of the most popular courses at university are in vocational areas such as medicine and nursing, with a job almost guaranteed on graduation (see centre pages).

For schools, guiding individuals towards the most suitable institution and course will involve more than simply looking at what their grades can buy them under the points system. Every year, too, university admissions officers and careers advisers are faced with students who are bewildered by the range of options they have to choose from.

The challenge is to guide candidates towards the institutions which suit their individual needs, both intellectually and socially.

The firm advice to staff and students alike is: don't panic.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, says:

"Students must not feel rushed into making the wrong decision under pressure of time.

"The head of sixth form, or careers adviser, must not make the decision for them. They must make the decision themselves.

"But it is important that teachers are available to help them. Nobody has better knowledge of the student's abilities.

"Teachers, or lecturers, know whether a student's grades are a proper reflection of their ability. When I was a head I always used to arrange my holidays so I was around when the results came out.

"Universities tend to prefer not to speak to parents but if the lecturers think the student has more potential than appears to be the case on paper then their teachers'comments can have a lot of influence in the university."

The annual clearing process does little to ease the pressure on tens of thousands of young people, forced to make snap decisions which are likely to have a profound affect on their subsequent career prospects.

There have been repeated attempts to reform the university admissions system, in an effort to reduce universities' reliance on grade predictions, thus cutting the number of students entering clearing.

Dreams of creating a system whereby students are able to apply to university after having received their A-level grades have, for the moment at least, been quashed by the universities, which are not keen to move

forward the start of the academic year to accommodate the change.

But the introduction of a new AS-level qualification - taken by sixth-form and college students a year earlier than A-levels - could provide the key to change.

Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions System, responsible for the university applications process, believes AS levels will eventually provide a much more accurate measure of A-level potential than is now available (with conditional places offered on the basis of predictions by candidates' teachers).

The only snag, he says, is that some universities might be tempted to make unconditional offers on the basis of AS-levels, leaving students with little motivation to get good A-level grades.

UCAS is currently pondering a five-point reform plan drawn up by Martin Harris, chairman of the Committee of Vice-chancellors and Principals. This includes recommendations for a later closing date for applications (probably January 31, instead of December 15); use of AS-levels to enable better predictions; and "blind" decision-making so that a candidate's choices remain invisible to other universities. A decision is expected in November.

Such reforms will at least streamline the system and may reduce the stress on students and cut the risk of poor choices leading to university drop-out.

But for the moment, the annual scramble for places is set to intensify. This year, with university admissions officers staging a two-day strike over a 3.5 per cent pay offer, students are being advised to wait until next week before contacting institutions. The student loans company has also warned that university entrants failing to apply by the end of this month may risk not getting their cheques in time.

For many the switch to a mass higher education system has brought enormous advantages. But in some respects, at least, getting a university place is more challenging than ever.

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