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As A-level results return to normality, is going to university still worth it? | UK News

The government wanted this year’s A-level results to mark a return to normality after education years blighted by COVID. 

Barring a few percentage points either way, they’ve got what they wanted. The statistics are broadly back to where they were in 2019 before the pandemic.

True, the number of A* and A grades was down but the high marks awarded during the teacher assessment years now look like the real anomaly.

A total of 414,940 applicants have got a place at university, four out of five of them at their first choice university.

Ministers and university vice-chancellors have been quick to congratulate those who fell short as well, pointing out that there are plenty of places in clearing, though many times more on traditional university courses than in apprenticeships. So far so familiar.

It would be a mistake however to think that there is not much to see here.

The British university sector is in turmoil and there are a growing number of reasons why school leavers should ask themselves whether it is worth going to university at all.

The government certainly wants you to think twice. Education Secretary Gillian Keegan gushed warm words on results day – she likes to point to her own experience of gaining a degree on day release while working as an apprentice.

The universities minister, Robert Halfon, who no longer has the “U” word in his title, takes the view that a “worthwhile” degree is one that results directly in well-paid employment within fifteen months of graduation.

This summer the government announced plans to cancel courses variously described as “Mickey Mouse”, “rip-off” and “low value” which, they say, do not lead to good jobs.

Then there are recruitment agencies. According to Hays, there has been a near doubling – a 90% increase – in the number of businesses stipulating a degree as a prerequisite for job applicants.

Simon Winfield, the CEO of Hays, questions the relevance of many university courses.

“The world of work is moving faster than many university curricula, and instead the opportunities to learn through practical application in the workplace will always be relevant.”

Of late, the university experience has not been what it was a generation ago.

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A-level disparities: What do we do next?

Anyone at school or university over the past four years had their education substantially disrupted by COVID and strikes by teachers and lecturers.

Courses and lectures were conducted remotely because of the lockdown. There was little chance for social interaction.

Online technology also opened up new possibilities which have not been entirely abandoned.

Around a quarter of lectures and tutorials offered this year are still “hybrid”, ie with the option of online rather than in-person learning.

Students contemplating high fees might also note that some of the best lecture courses from around the world can be found on YouTube, often for free.

Many young people are having trouble graduating this year because of the marking boycott by members of the University and College Union.

Freshers following them to university in the autumn can expect continued disruption as lecturers plan to strike again despite having a pay award imposed on them.

It costs a lot to go to university. A year’s tuition in England carries a price tag of £9,250 for UK residents and double that for international students.

By the time they’ve covered living costs for three or four years, many homegrown graduates will have debts of around £50,000.

The government is just lowering the threshold and extending the decades over which they will have to repay after leaving.

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This year there is a population bulge in 18-year-olds just as accommodation is getting more expensive because of mortgage increases for landlords.

In some cases, accommodation is becoming scarcer because properties are being used for Airbnbs and because universities are behind schedule with the construction of new properties for students.

In spite of the financial burden on students, university authorities say they are in danger of going bust.

If the £9,250 tuition fee had gone up in line with inflation it would now be over £12,000 but it is politically unpopular and has been capped. Sir Keir Starmer only recently dropped Labour’s pledge to drop the fees.

Universities calculate that they are losing around £2,500 per home student and it is alleged that this is forcing them to increase the proportion of international students, and to syphon domestic students into less expensive courses that do not require expensive facilities such as laboratories.

The tuition fee system has been vexed ever since it was set up.

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Sky’s Dan Whitehead explains available options if you didn’t get the A-level results you needed.

The industrialist Lord Browne, who reviewed it for the Blair government, envisioned a true market where there would be great variation in the fees charged – up to £14,000 for some courses.

But the government capped it with the result that almost all opted for the maximum £9,000.

When I was a lay member on the board of King’s College London, a delegation from the National Union of Students pleaded to be charged the top rate. If not, they thought their qualifications would be valued less than those from other Russell Group universities.

Given all this negativity it is not surprising that the number of young people, aged 18-24, who think “university is a waste of time” has gone up a bit to 32% compared to 22% who disagree. Almost half of them don’t know.

In reality, the picture is much brighter for universities here.

The UK is now close to hitting New Labour’s aspiration of half of school leavers having gone to university by the age of 30.

By the Sunak government’s utilitarian attitude, three-quarters of graduates are in work at or above the median national wage within 15 months of finishing their studies.

73% say their degree helped them find a job, and 75% say they built their skills while at university.

On average, graduates earn £10,000 a year more than those who didn’t go to university. Those who go into law, banking, the energy sector and retailing do best.

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Children who are the first generation in their family to go to university tend to earn more than other graduates – although those from private schools are still more represented in the highest-earning echelons than those who qualified for free school meals.

97% of bosses say they still look to recruit graduates. Some jobs require a degree for entry – including “the professions” such as medicine, accountancy, law, science, engineering, and of course, by definition, academia.

The rapidly developing tech sector, identified by Hays recruiters, may be the exception – Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were both Harvard dropouts.

Thanks to a “buyers market” some employers were guilty of “qualifications inflation” by requiring degrees although they were not strictly relevant.

If that trend is ending so much the better.

Equally many employers have cut back on training opportunities compared to a generation ago.

Forty years ago the routes into the media were paid, either on-the-job traineeships for school leavers or graduate traineeships in media organisations.

These no longer exist, instead students pay for their own training at institutions which effectively control access to unpaid “work placements”.

A maths exam in progress at Pittville High School, Cheltenham
A maths exam in progress at Pittville High School, Cheltenham

This can either be at the undergraduate level in the wrongly sneered at “Mickey Mouse” courses at “new universities” or specialist postgraduate master’s degrees.

The few remaining trophy “traineeships” at organisations such as the BBC tend to go to those who have already gone through this process including “work experience”.

Bhaska Vina, pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge admits that the “graduate premium” on earnings is a good reason to go to university.

He is right to point out that it is also “a moment of independence and personal discovery” where young people develop transferable analytical, communicative and collaborative skills alongside their studies.

This applies to all subjects and not just the business studies and STEM subjects favoured by the present government.

On balance then, if you are wondering whether to go to university or not, the evidence suggests that, yes, for all the present tribulations and expense it is probably still worth it.

Students set to collect A-level results as courses available through clearing drop after ‘admin blip’ | UK News

Hundreds of thousands of students will get their A-level results today across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in the first exams held since before the COVID pandemic.

Grades are expected to go down overall compared with last year, but should be higher than in 2019.

The summer exams were cancelled in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic and students were awarded grades decided by teachers.

This year’s race for university places is expected to be one of the most competitive yet, with almost 40% of students thought likely to make use of the clearing system to find a place on a course.

Admissions service Ucas acknowledged that universities have been more cautious in their offer-making.

It added that while it expects record or near-record numbers of students to get onto their first-choice courses, the process will not be “pain-free” for all, with some students left disappointed.

While some schools and colleges ask students to collect their results in person, others will publish the results online.

The Department for Education said record numbers of students, including high numbers of disadvantaged students, are still expected to start university in September.

The Association of Colleges Chief Executive David Hughes said the class of 2022 faced “unprecedented disruption to their education”, while Education Secretary James Cleverly said every student collecting their results should be proud.

Courses for clearing drop after ‘admin blip’

Students who miss out on their first choices for university have been urged not to panic and instead turn to teachers for advice and support.

However, the number of courses for students in clearing dropped ahead of results day, with one university blaming an “administrative blip”, for showing more than 500 as available when they shouldn’t have been.

Students can use clearing to see what courses or universities might be available to them if they need an alternative plan.

As of Wednesday morning, a PA news agency snapshot of the UK’s largest higher education providers showed there were 22,685 courses with vacancies for students living in England, down from 23,280 on Friday.

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The University of Liverpool had shown 529 courses as available in clearing on the Ucas website last week but it is understood this should not have been the case and was an “administrative blip”.

A spokeswoman for the university said clearing at its university will be for “a small number of high-quality candidates in a range of subjects”.

They added: “The Ucas clearing pages were live for a period of time for pre-qualified applicants, as is the case each year. We removed the pages while we determine which courses are available in advance of results day tomorrow, when we will advertise any vacancies.”

The change saw options at the Russell Group universities – of which Liverpool University is a member – dwindle compared to last week, with 1,785 courses at 15 of the 24 elite institutions as of Wednesday morning, compared with 2,358 courses at 17 of them on Friday.

Last year it was announced that A-level students sitting exams this summer would find out what topics they would be tested on to help them prepare.

A-level and GCSE results could be impacted as 72-hour exam board staff strike announced | UK News

The delivery of thousands of GCSE and A-level results could be impacted as workers at exam board AQA prepare for a 72-hour strike.

The walkout was announced by Unison over pay.

Members will walk out for three days from Friday 29 July to Sunday 31 July – with warnings that industrial action could escalate unless talks are reopened.

This year, GCSE students will get their results on Thursday 25 August, while A-Level results will be released on Thursday 18 August.

While results can be mailed to students or available on email, most students collect their results in person.

Many of the staff involved in the strike say they are struggling to make ends meet following successive below-inflation pay awards, Unison said.

Staff were given an increase of 0.6% last year, with 3% offered this year, which Unison said is a real-terms pay cut.

Unison official Lizanne Devonport said the workers have been left with “no other option” but to strike.

GCSE and A-level examiners have been asked to be more generous this year, with advanced information released to help students with assessments.

The decision to publish details of topics that appeared was taken to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on education.