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Charlie Edwards: Universities need to get their acts together so next year’s students don’t face the “great squeeze”

Picture 9 Charlie Edwards is a rather nervous student, party activist and edits Political Promise, a youth political website.

Today, I will be walking into my school, picking up a brown envelope, reading a few letters on a slightly embossed piece of paper which will seal the fate of my future education prospects and, ultimately, my career. I am not alone. In fact, this year will see the greatest number of school leavers, and the repercussions of this have been the over-subscription to universities.

This year is “the great squeeze”. Cuts to courses and departments, threats of fines for those universities that over-recruit, a ‘mini-boom’ in UK births in 1991-1992, an influx of mature students - retraining after recession-provoked redundancies, mainly – and those who the system failed last year, have piled the pressure on my fellow school-leavers.

Why all the fuss? For example’s sake, let’s look at the story of Brian. Brian has a conditional offer of AAB from the University of Exeter to study French. If he receives an AAB today, then his next three years will be sat in the union bar on the cider. If the letters from his brown envelope are ABB, he will have to sit through the nerve-wracking, arduous and head-against-a-brick-wall process known as clearing. This is where Brian can see if other universities offering degree courses in French that have lower admission requirements have available places. Given there will be an estimated 20,000 of us in this predicament today, it will be crossed-fingers all round. 

Luckily for Brian, French is a popular degree. I have applied to do Politics, Philosophy and Economics, which is only offered by ten universities. One of my friends wants to study Audiology. In these specialist areas, a year out may be the only option for this year’s lost thousands.

In years past, there were plenty available places and universities would bite your hand off for your custom. This year, the power firmly lies with the universities. For many students, you get what you are given. For universities, it has opened the door to opportunism.

The University of Bolton has declared it will be open for business for any high achiever rejected by their first choice universities. As many other middle-of-the-road institutions have followed suit, they may be able to snap up some highly talented individuals who have been rejected by a Russell Group university, despite gaining two A’s and a B. As the country’s only independent university, Buckingham University, has also said it has places for a September start.

Louise Tickle in the Guardian quotes a woman called Vera Telford, who is one of the thousands of phone-manners for UCAS during the week-long ‘clearing’ process:

"A girl rang last year with three Bs and I said: 'Congratulations, you've done very well.' She said: 'You're the first person today who's said that.' It's important that 18-year-olds aren't made to feel failures."

How do we relieve this pressure on students? Firstly, relieve the pressure faced by universities. A radical shake-up of further education is required; encourage entrepreneurs to set up independent universities, expand the provision of vocational colleges and separate the two strands of study (vocational and academic) and set up government-backed voluntary gap year schemes and apprenticeships in the Third Sector. 

The target to get 50% of school leavers in university initiated by the previous government is now widely seen as unsustainable. It has made progressing to university seem as the only route to a successful career. As a result of the massive amount of graduates entering the workforce every year, a degree has lost its value. Employers will increasingly look at the quality of the degree and the university when recruiting. Despite a wide array of experiences, it seems a graduate’s career is determined by the decisions made in the university application process at the age of 18 and little else.

Demand for university education greatly exceeds supply. Once this imbalance is redressed, this year’s “great squeeze” may just be a blip in this country’s great history in academia.

If anyone reading this has just received their grades then don’t worry about them. After all, they are only letters on a page from a brown envelope.


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