The college where I work is well known throughout the region for its high standards. Progress and results are great, most of our students are successful at university and we’re one of the biggest state providers of entrants to Oxford and Cambridge. Not bad for a non-selective city sixth form, and I’m proud to have played a part in that success.
It annoys the hell out of me though! In the UK, there is such a cultural emphasis on elitism: according to social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, 24% of MPs are Oxbridge educated and two-thirds of Boris Johnson’s cabinet went to private schools, compared to 7% of the general population. It’s as if we’ve become blinkered, believing that privilege is the only measure of someone’s worth. Old-fashioned deference is alive and well!
I digress though. What about the typical 17-year-old, wondering what they’re going to do with their life?
Here’s want I think: everyone should have a chance to go to university if they want. Whichever university they want. Yeah, I can hear the protests now… “But some people aren’t clever enough! University isn’t right for everyone! What about all the overqualified graduates?” And I’d agree with you… up to a point. Let’s look at some of the arguments.
Every teacher is familiar with Carol Dweck’s mindset work, or at least the idea that people don’t have fixed abilities in the way we used to believe. Our talented Oxbridge students didn’t all come from successful schools, with nine A*s at GCSE – they worked hard at college to progress from varied starting points. Many people’s strengths get missed until it is too late. It’s been widely reported that underprivileged students’ predicted grades are lower than those of their well-off classmates, so these students often think there’s no point in trying.
Not all career paths require a degree, but is that the only reason we go to university? For me, it was a rite of passage, a stepping stone between childhood and adult life, which expanded my horizons in ways I could never have imagined. I didn’t ‘use’ my degree immediately upon completion. Like many graduates, I worked in retail for several years before pursuing my longer-term aims. It can take a while to work out what those are, so why not enjoy the journey?
So if your child is in their final year at school or college, or drifting through a gap year with no definite plans, (how) should you be talking with them about university?
To go or not to go?
Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that university is an investment – in time as much as money – so it’s only worth doing if you will enjoy the studying. That said, the style of learning and assessment varies from course to course, so it doesn’t have to be about writing dissertations if you don’t want it to be. Encourage them to do the research about the different options.
If your young person has BTEC qualifications or less than the standard three good A Levels, they may not realise they qualify for university. Most institutions accept BTECs as part of the standard entry requirements for a degree, and for those with lower grades there is an ever-increasing range of foundation degrees and foundation years to choose from, some of them at prestigious universities.
But why choose a prestigious uni? A lot of people get hung up on the Russell Group thing. This is a self-selected association of 24 universities, established in 1994 to represent its members’ interests. The idea that it represents the ‘best’ universities in the UK is disputed, not least by a glance at the league tables for your chosen subject. For example, Legal Cheek reported this year that Solent, Cumbria and London South Bank had outperformed many of their Russell Group rivals in the Guardian’s Law degree league tables.
My advice to students torn between different institutions is to get full details of the course content and style, and then visit the place to get a feel, not just for the university but also for the town or city they’ll be based in. After all, this is likely to be their home for at least three years.
Money money money
What about affordability though? The fear of getting into huge amounts of debt is a big turn off for many people, but university education is free at the point of delivery (and there are plenty of financial incentives for students who meet Widening Participation criteria). The student finance system means that no-one pays up front, unless they really want to. Repayment time doesn’t roll around until graduates are earning a decent salary (currently £2143 per month) and even then, the repayments are so small that, according to Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis, most people will never pay back their full loan.
So yes, I do believe that everyone should at least consider university, and that people with disadvantage should be supported and encouraged to pursue their dreams. If social mobility is to really happen, we need to value each individual and their choices equally.
Thankfully, my values don’t get trampled on at work. Of the students heading off to Oxbridge this year, over 40% come from a widening participation background, and we have a brilliant employability programme too. People’s lives really can be transformed through learning.
Lucy Aditi is on a mission to help young people thrive in their education and take control of their future. Get in touch to find out how she can help you or your child put together a stunning university application.