Tag Archive | university

Sharp Drop in Uni Applications

UCAS, the body which handles applications for university places, has released 2011 figures. The headline, reported throughout the press, is that applications this year are down by over 12% on last year. The increase in fees, payable after graduation by a form of additional income tax, is being blamed for the drop.

Shadow Education Minister Angela Burns has weighed in, saying that the preliminary data should act as a “harsh wake-up call”.

Toni Pearce, of the National Union of Students, blames the government:
“The confusion caused by the government’s botched reforms is causing young people to at the very least hesitate before applying to university.”
The Guardian misrepresents the data to suggest class differences:

Monday’s figures are just too stark to ignore. When the number of applicants from outside the UK is included, the fall is 9% — greater than it has been for at least six years. The figures show this decline in applicants comes from the pool of students most likely to be badly-off.

Everyone, it seems, thinks that university numbers should be on a one-way escalator to steadily greater proportions of our youngsters studying for degrees and that any drop is, by definition, a bad thing.

Everyone, it seems then, is wrong.

The figures, of course, do not indicate a collapse in student confidence. Although 12% seems a large drop, it should be understood in the context of dramatic rises in recent years, not least last year when many students put off a gap year to apply early. This artificially inflated 2010 figures by taking from what would have been this year’s applicants. Even with the fall, we are still only just below the 2009 rate, with a smaller pool of applicantants. (There has been a 6% drop in 17-year-olds over the last four years of increasing applications and two more years of falls — expect the same stories next year!)

The Real Issue

What the headline writers have failed to address is whether a growing number of graduates is really a good idea. The advantages are supposed to be that the UK needs more graduates for all the new graduate jobs that are being produced in the economy, and that there will be fewer jobs for lower skilled people.
Does the economy need more highly skilled workers? Yes, naturally. Highly skilled people have always been in demand throughout history. But there is a sleight of hand going on here. The problem is that the term graduate is not now synonymous with skilled, and graduate jobs do not often require high levels of skills. Twenty years ago, if you were an employer looking for a reasonably bright, trainable youngster, you advertised for someone with A-levels or good O-levels. Now that anyone who can hold a pen through sixth-form college is encouraged to start a degree, not having a degree is a serious hindrance.

Not because of the skills you did not pick up, but because employers will wonder why you weren’t up to a degree when all and sundry can graduate now.

Reaching Their Limits

When we have students maxing out at GCSE grade C going on to be awarded A-levels and then degrees, you might just wonder what it is they are learning at university. If the top three GCSE grades were beyond them, just what level was the intellectual challenge of the degree? Before you start to panic about the quality of our engineers, doctors and scientists, you can’t get on one of the technical degrees without very good grades: C’s won’t cut the mustard. But having a degree, by itself, is no guarantee of superior skill levels, with many course instructors unable to lift the academic standard to a suitable level without having most of their students failing and dropping out.
For many people, GCSE or A-level is their academic limit. Unfortunately, many of these teenagers are being mislead into thinking that by investing in an expensive three-year course their careers will be appropriately enhanced.

The evidence is against them though, as some school-leavers are starting to realise.

The country does need more skilled workers, but not more low-skilled workers with degree certificates and unrealistic expectations. The solution is not more accessible (read ‘easier’) degrees, but investment in Primary and Secondary education, with higher technical graduate salaries to persuade those bright enough to tackle the harder subjects,
or else encourage talented people from overseas to boost our ailing manufacturing economy.

This brouhaha will blow over soon, regardless. The hugely increased fees charged by middling universities will not last long, as students will expect value for money. Fees will fall to match the desirability or career benefit of the course and student numbers will drop, returning hard working students to the productive economy where they are needed.

Cable’s Barmy Plan

Much of the current focus in the education press is on the threat to funding for Universities, with the Telegraph reporting a plan to allow badly run universities to go bust and close, and the LibDem Minister Vince Cable announcing that his department will in the future only fund the highest quality university research.

Cable’s plan is especially barmy, even if he does have a crystal ball to sort the research wheat from the chaff (who saw the value of lasers, developed solely to test a subtle prediction of Einstein’s, or knew that the quantum physics of the 1920s would lead to the digital revolution?)

If only the top research centres survive, where will the career progression for freshly qualified post-docs be? Where will Ph.D. students find posts to cut their teeth on and develop their skills? Why would the most talented students in schools be attracted to research instead of banking?

Britain’s research base is still world class, which is a near miracle given how much is done with so few resources. But the structure of our research base is lean already. If Vince Cable seems intent on reducing it back further, he will find that it is not the fat he is cutting away. Real and irreversible damage to the country will be done. It will not be easily reversed by cash injections in a few years time when the damage becomes apparent.

A Law Professor, Research and Feminist Rhetoric

I have spent some years arguing from a position of ignorance and opinion that feminism is founded less on a desire for equal opportunities than it is on seeking extra rights for women over men, whom they despise. Having just sat through an inaugural professorial lecture by an academic lawyer, who specialises in European law with a focus on feminism and the Strasbourg European Court of Human Rights, I am more convinced that is true.

I attended with an expectation that a legal academic with a taste for evidence and rational, unbiased judgement would present a much more attractive face of feminism than I see in the papers, with images in my head of CND campaigners and Harriet Harman foaming at the mouth at the unfairness of it all. But I was wrong.

The professor did not, to her credit, talk at all like Harriet Harman, nor look like a shapeless ‘Nukes Out’ Greenham Common camper. She was well spoken and lucid as she presented her research, but the research was not what I expected from academics at a good university. I had, in my naïveté, assumed that most research was similar to the physics papers I read, suffused as they are with original data, error margins, logical deductions, principles and proposals for falsification.


The reality was that the research was a survey and tabulation of just over a hundred cases heard by the European Court. Not the sample size of a thousand favoured by pollsters, despite figures reported to a tenth of a percent. There was no study of failed cases. No statistical analysis of the data to find significant differences. Just cases divided up into groups based on the sexual identity of the claimants and the type of right allegedly infringed.

Everything is a Feminist Issue

The main approach taken was to recast every rights claim as a sex discrimination case if a woman was involved. So, a woman as a single parent traveller, fighting a planning decision preventing her from setting up home in a green belt, should has claimed sex discrimination. (Why? Would a man have been treated differently?) A student at a Turkish university wanted to be able to express her religious identity by wearing an Islamic headscarf should have framed the claim ‘as a female autonomy case’ instead of a religious freedom one. Domestic and sexual violence, since they were ‘female-specific harms’, should require the state to intervene pro-actively to prevent breaches of the Act. This last point prompted a (male) member of the audience to query whether these were really female specific harms (and, by implication, whether framing all infringements affecting women should be twisted into gender issues). This drew sneering, eye-rolling and “for goodness sake” responses from others – how dare a MAN critique a feminist argument!

But the point was a good one. Equality for women under the law is a good thing, and pretty much achieved already. But to grant half the population additional rights, simply on the basis of their gender, is not equality. It is a single issue group advancing the political cause of those under the feminist umbrella at the expense of those outside. And that is not good.

Trying to be Right

Is this a case of lawyers trying to win an argument instead of trying to be right? The professorial lecture the following week was by a female science education researcher, who spent her time showing evidence (real research!) that girls’ and boys’ brains (minds?) are objectively different, and it is possible to teach them in such a way that far fewer girls will be put off studying physics and maths. No sneers here, just questions about the implications of the data. The lady was a self identified feminist, but instead of trying to bias the legal system, she had set to to find the causes of and solutions to the problems she has identified.

OK, so the social sciences have an unhealthy regard for weak correlations and use limited experimental procedures, but they seem to stand head and shoulders over the legal-eagles.

A Level Results will bring Clearing Heartache

Results day is nearly on us, but those unfortunate students who miss their offer grades will have fewer options than usual this year. There is more competition, and even the standard fallback, clearing, will not have many course places to offer.

For a quick assessment of the regular effects of this silliest part of the silly season on teachers check last year’s post on the matter (the newspapers will just roll out the same stories anyway). This post will focus instead on the students.

This Year is Different

This year is different for anyone biting their nails waiting for Thursday’s results, because of the combined effects of three government policies:

  • One is the often discussed grade inflation, which leads ever larger proportions of the school population to feel they have what it takes to succeed at university, and allows the government to claim standards are improving.
  • The second is the lack of funding to cover the extra costs to institutions of teaching the increasing numbers of undergraduates.
  • And the third is that, for the first time in fifteen years, universities will be financially penalised if they over-recruit.

Traditionally, students’ applications to universities are based on the school predicted grades, which are inflated to improve the chance of an offer. It is not as risky as it sounds, since universities routinely allow students who only miss their offer by one grade to still keep their place. And everyone does it, making it fair, at least. And if they missed out, then last year 44 000 applied for course during Clearing, filling up the remaining university places.

Fewer Places

But now, with 40 000 extra applications and only 3 000 extra places, Clearing will only have around 16 000 places on offer, leaving 65 000 hopeful students without a place. And with a demographic peak reaching college in the next year or two, taking a year out and applying again next year is now looking to be a silly strategy.

One could hope that the main effect of all this is that only those students with poor grades applying to weaker institutions will suffer, but many students are unrealistic when it comes to selecting competitive courses at prestigious universities.


Admissions officers are saying they will not allow any ‘softening’ of offers, so missing one A level subject by one grade will lead to a rejection. Even our local ex-teacher-training college-now-university will not soften requirements or offer places for clearing on any but the two most frivolous courses.

The next couple of weeks look likely to deliver heartache on a large scale.

NUS Now Favours a Graduate Tax

The National Union of Students (NUS) has long campaigned for a university education completely funded by the state and for a return of the system of grants to cover living expenses, so the announcement of their future funding proposals comes as a bit of a shock.

Wes Streeting, the NUS president, had been under pressure to suggest an alternative to the current system of loans to pay for the fees, which start to be paid back when a graduate passes an earning threshold. He describes the proposals an ‘not a simple graduate tax’, and he is right – it is not simple.

Instead of a flat rate, the NUS plan has a sliding scale of tax, ranging from 0.3% to 3% depending on earnings. Wes says that this is needed to ensure that those who benefit most from their education pay back most.
There is also a system to encourage companies to pay some of the debt for employees.

I think that he has missed the meaning of ‘percent’, in that a single flat rate ensures that those earning more pay more. The sliding scale is a nakedly redistributive tax measure. In the NUS’s words, though, it is ‘progressive’.

The main motivation for the NUS funding suggestions is the pressure from the top research universities to raise the maximum fees charge from 3000 to at least 5000 pounds per year. These universities offer more of the expensive laboratory based courses than the newer institutions and are struggling to fund them. One solution is to recruit even more foreign students, who pay a much larger market rate for their studies, but local students are missing out on places.

Wes Streeting does not want an education market, but with more demand for top courses than places, something has to be done. But why should someone with two Es at A Level, studying an endemanding course at a undistinguished local college pay the same as someone studying Engineering at Cambridge?

A well educated and motivated graduate will benefit from their education, although it is their character and abilities as much as their qualifications that determines their level of career success. With the existing income tax system the Treasure already shares in the success of the best and most employable graduates. If you earn more then you pay more tax.

What is the reason for a punitive graduate tax that seeks to milk those deemed to have a privileged education, who will already be paying a higher rate of tax than others?

Coming from student political hacks, one might suggest it is just the standard class envy of the jealous young socialist. A detail from the NUS proposals that supports this guess is the limit on paying for the cost of your education if you can afford it. Wealthy families who would be happy to completely fund a course will be prevented from paying more than a small percentage, since it is these graduates who will be paying way over the odds for twenty years and funding those on lightweight courses who will never be taxed enough to cover the cost of their education.

It is nice to see the NUS abandoning one of its cherished policies, but this proposal offers more light on the proposers than on future university funding structures.

Engineering Diplomas Only Partially Accepted by Universities

With both Oxford and Cambridge reporting that they will accept Advanced Engineering Diplomas for students entering their Engineering degree programmes, the top Russell Group Universities now have a unified response to the Government’s flagship education policy. But it is not accepted without reservations, as

… it is essential that the diploma sufficiently equips candidates with the skills and knowledge they need to flourish on our courses and we want to be fully assured that they are sufficiently robust and challenging academically. Our member universities are in the process of assessing the academic rigour and general suitability of the diploma as a route to higher education.

In fact, although the Advanced Diploma will be considered worth three A Levels, anyone applying for Engineering degrees at a decent university will need to take A Levels alongside it.

Cambridge University says that “Students wishing to apply with this qualification must also have an A-level in physics”, and Bristol University, for example, is equally blunt: while some Faculties will accept Diplomas as full qualification for entry, “Mechanical Engineering [will need an] Engineering Diploma grade A, plus A grades in A level Maths & Physics.

Ed Balls,the UK Schools Secretary, has said the the Diplomas will become “the qualification of choice”, and Schools Minister Jim Knight believes that this

&hellip statement recognises that the diploma is a demanding qualification and that students who work hard and achieve highly in their diploma will be able to study at any university they choose.

I don’t think A Level Physics will be replaced by the Diploma any time soon.

Patten versus Denham

Universities Minister John Denham has heaped criticism on Chris Patten after his speech at the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference last week, for suggesting that universities could not “make up for the deficiencies of secondary education”:

It is my belief that there is now widespread acceptance across our universities that the current system does not yet capture all the talent that exists in young people across the country, which is why it is all the more disappointing to hear the comments of critics like Chris Patten who have an outmoded view of the central issues in widening participation.

For Denham, “widening participation” seems to be the sole function of elite institutions. He cannot, being a good Marxist, bear the idea that Oxford will not admit the badly educated. Chris Patten, one-time Education Minister and current Chancellor of Oxford and Newcastle Universities, had complained that:

However hard we try to widen participation at Oxbridge, and I am sure you could say the same at many other universities, there is no chance whatsoever of meeting the socio-economic targets set by agents of government so long as the proportion of students getting A grades in traditional academic A-level subjects at private and maintained schools stays the same. It is as simple as that.

It is as simple as that.

As I wrote in a previous post, poorly qualified students do not do well at university. Trying to identify some degree of intrinsic worth or talent in a student at school and then transplanting them to a Russel Group university will not work: an undeveloped talent is not a sufficient preparation for advanced study. A clutch of grade As at A level is not a guarantee either, but like it or not, if a student cannot get high grades at school, for whatever reason, they will start university a long way behind their classmates.

Can universities be expected to make up in three or four years the educational scars left by thirteen years in an inner-city sink school? Denham thinks so, saying that “Education is the most powerful tool we have in achieving social justice.” If he means that accepting weak candidates onto challenging courses is an indicator that social justice has been achieved, then he is seriously deluded. It is not just to set up these poor people for such a fall, as fall they will.

Social justice should not be treated as simply another high-stakes key target that can be improved by crudely manipulating the indicator variable (percentage of sink estate kids at Oxford) directly by coercing universities. The indicator is only useful if it improves indirectly, as a result of better schooling, and that will need a whole slew of ‘indicators’ to be manipulated: financial poverty of families; poverty of ambition in much of the working-class culture; the flight of good teachers to ‘good’ schools; the lack of specialist teachers; and many others.

Of course, this is a difficult task. So difficult that no country has ever solved the problem. Bashing ‘posh’ universities in the press is much easier.

To give the government some credit, though, Denham was making his comments about Lord Patten at a conference for the AimHigher project, which is a major scheme to tackle poverty of ambition by supporting and encouraging children who come from families with no history of Higher Education to consider university and professional careers. My own college has received money to pay for such a scheme from this project and is currently identifying and briefing suitable students and their parents.

I know this, not because of the high quality of internal staff communication, but because several students disappeared from my classroom suddenly, missing two hours of their physics lesson. Apparently, they had been instructed to skip their lessons to attend the compulsory AimHigher meeting.

Hasn’t anyone learned?