My mum and dad did everything that could have been expected of them to instil in me the importance of education. They’d had no choice but to leave their own respective secondary modern and technical school at 15, due to the old tripartite system that gave grammar schools the state monopoly on 16-18 education.
I was their youngest child and they urged me to be the first in the family to get to university. But aside from the fame of Oxford and Cambridge, and a Blackadder quip about Hull, we didn’t really know anything about the differences between universities. It should have been my sixth form’s responsibility to offer guidance, but mum and dad had moved far from the industrial docklands of their youth and I grew up in an affluent area defined by racehorses and the telecoms boom. My school must have assumed that everyone’s parents would be helping to filter their piles of prospectuses.
For our economically disadvantaged students in colleges and sixth forms, especially those whose parents did not attend higher education, we teachers are sometimes the only trusted source of advice and guidance. We can’t shy away from honest conversations about the relative merits of different institutions, or from warning our students off the least effective. Even if, embarrassingly, we might have come through them ourselves.
The relative value of a degree
The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently published data on the relative value of the same degrees offered by different universities, measured by earnings five years after graduating. If you’re taking medicine or dentistry, you’re given the happy choice of a university that will push you to well-above-average earnings or one that will propel you to light-years-above-average earnings.
Not so for all subjects. Fortunately, I inherited a northern sense of humour, so when I saw that an English degree from my own post-1992 alma mater should, in theory, be knocking me eight grand below average earnings, I laughed. Loudly.
Clearly, I’ve been lucky and have managed to forge a professional career in spite of the apparent toxicity of my degree, so at this distance of time I’m able to laugh. I took the lowest offer I received through Ucas because, without understanding the difference, laziness won out. It concerns me that disadvantaged young people might be making similarly bad choices for more sympathetic reasons. With the cap on university places gone, the HE landscape has changed dramatically and we need to equip our learners to make shrewd choices in a buyer’s market.
Last year, I ran into a former GCSE student of mine who wanted to tell me how well he was doing in his A levels. He was on course for an A* in English literature. He’d received an offer from a Russell Group university, but had instead accepted an unconditional offer from elsewhere. The "elsewhere" was a post-1992 uni that will, in theory, see him earning £4,000 per year less than the place he declined. When I’d taught him at school he’d been on the Pupil Premium register and I remember his anxiety and embarrassment every time I mentioned a trip or recommended a book that he feared he wouldn’t be able to pay for. From his point of view, an unconditional offer was a certainty he could bank on.
From my point of view, unconditional offers damage social mobility by tempting cautious disadvantaged students to take up places at universities struggling to fill their seats, while wealthier risk takers snatch up Russell Group and Oxbridge places, perpetuating the economic divide. Such offers should be banned.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for the education charity SHINE