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.
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”.
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.
An estimated £4.3million worth of Class A drugs have been seized and 230 suspects arrested in a crackdown on county lines gangs.
Around 70 criminal networks supplying heroin, cocaine and crack from London were shut down by the Metropolitan Police during a week of action beginning on 3 October.
Scotland Yard detectives also confiscated a large quantity of Class B drugs together with almost £335,000 in cash and almost 60 weapons including a firearm, a samurai sword, meat cleaver, machetes, knives and knuckle dusters.
A total of 249 children and vulnerable adults – 215 male and 34 female – were safeguarded during the week-long crackdown, which is part of the force’s Operation Orochi.
County lines refers to criminal gangs using mobile phones to supply drugs from large cities to towns and rural areas.
This week police intercepted county lines running from the capital to Hull and Hertfordshire.
Line holders are in charge of the network while runners, often vulnerable people, are used to deliver the drugs.
This system of drug distribution leads to serious violence and exploitation, police said.
Some 31 referrals were made to officials responsible for identifying victims of human trafficking and modern slavery and ensuring they get appropriate support.
From its inception in November 2019 until September this year, Operation Orochi has seen more than 1,260 county lines dismantled and almost 2,500 people arrested, leading to 3,833 charges for offences including drug supply, weapon possession and modern slavery.
Deputy assistant commissioner, Graham McNulty, said: “County lines bring misery to communities and devastate the lives of those who are most vulnerable in our society.
“There is an undeniable link between drugs and violence, so disrupting all routes of drug supply continues to be central to our work in making London safer for everyone.”
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Mr McNulty added: “Our efforts to tackle county lines are ongoing day in, day out, not just during the coordinated weeks of action.
“We will press on with removing drugs off our streets, keeping our communities safe, and protecting those who are most vulnerable and easily susceptible to predatory gangs.”
Police from across the capital also worked alongside 6,000 children and adults to explain the warning signs of criminal exploitation.
A man and woman who “played their part in a criminal enterprise” to smuggle cocaine with a street value of £1.75m into the UK have been jailed.
Michael Williams, 37, and Jessica Waldron, 36, planned to hand over the 22kg haul during a “rendezvous” near Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport after arriving from Colombia on 14 December 2019.
But unbeknown to them, Colombian authorities had intercepted the drugs and replaced them with wooden blocks before the plane took off. The UK’s National Crime Agency had also been alerted.
Isleworth Crown Court was told how the pair had arranged to leave the cocaine, hidden in two bags, in airport toilets after arriving in the UK.
Parts of the handover were planned through the encrypted messaging platform EncroChat, on which they were instructed to pose as a couple by dressing in specific clothing for identification purposes and by holding hands on arrival.
They were seen following a third person into the toilets with their bags and exiting without them, the court was told.
Williams and Waldron were arrested by Border Force and pleaded guilty to being concerned with the fraudulent evasion of a prohibition on the importation of a class A drug two days later.
The pair, both of Holly Hall, Dudley, were each sentenced to six years and eight months in prison.
Prosecutor John Ojakovoh said: “The defendants were two couriers who were recruited into and played their part in a criminal enterprise to import 22 kilograms of cocaine into the United Kingdom from Colombia.”
Detailing the attempted handover, he said: “There was a rendezvous. They followed (the third person) to the toilet area, having deviated from what had been the natural route for arrivals, and then they were seen going in with holdalls containing the blocks.
“They came out without the holdalls.”
The prosecutor said Waldron acted as the “lead” courier after getting a message from a contact on 9 November 2019.
Tom Blackburn, representing the defendants, said they had a smaller role in a wider enterprise and were “following orders” from more senior players.
He added Waldron and Williams were class A drug users at the time of the offence and motivated in part by a desire to fund their addictions.
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They have since kicked their habits and made efforts to reform themselves while in prison, he said.
Passing sentence, Recorder Christopher Stone said he had taken into account the “significant quantity of drugs” concerned but said both defendants appeared to have “changed for the better” while behind bars.