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Peak Students?

Some eye-catching statistics have come out over the last couple of weeks in connection with university entrance.

  • The number of people signing up for degree courses has risen relentlessly for many years. In 1980 it was around 68 000, rising to 243 000 in the year 2000. This autumn the figure will be in excess of 480 000 (source UCAS https://www.ucas.com/corporate ). The shift from grants in the 1980s to the tuition fees and loans of today becomes easily understandable against this background.
  • The gender gap continues to increase in size with around 60 000 more women heading off to university than men. Stripping out international and mature students from the totals, around 25% of 18 year old UK men will start university this autumn compared to 34% of 18 year old UK women.
  • This may in part be due to differences in GCSE results: a girl is more than twice as likely to obtain an A* or an A grade at English than a boy (source http://www.jcq.org.uk/ ). Interestingly there is little difference between the performance of boys and girls in Mathematics, the other subject taken by everyone. GCSE results are declared on university applications and will become even more important as A levels move back to 2 year linear courses with no AS qualification.
  • 59% of all graduates are now working in jobs deemed to be non-graduate roles (source Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development http://www.cipd.co.uk/publicpolicy/policy-reports/overqualification-skills-mismatch-graduate-labour-market.aspx ).
  • More students are taking traditional ‘facilitating’ subjects at A level; the usual ‘media studies’ jibes look increasingly ill-placed.
  • The percentages of A* and A grades at GCSE and A level have stabilised, probably for political rather than educational reasons; the end of grade inflation means an end to the annual chorus of ‘it was harder last year’ and an easier comparison of year on year trends.
  • Privately educated UK graduates earn more than their state-educated counterparts (source Sutton Trust http://www.suttontrust.com/researcharchive/private-pay-progression/ ). For example, three years after graduation independent school attendees earned an additional £4 500 per year more than their peers with the gap widening further with age. The research ascribed around half of this gap to improved examination results and the rest to ‘soft skills’ such as articulacy, assertiveness and teamwork.
  • Subjects seen as ‘marketable’ at degree level will become ever more popular. Even at Cambridge University, surely a bastion of free-thinking, individual intellectual development, the numbers of applicants per place vary from 2 for Classics or Theology up to around 7 for Medicine or Engineering and almost 9 for Economics or Architecture (http://www.undergraduate.study.cam.ac.uk/sites/www.undergraduate.study.cam.ac.uk/files/publications/undergrad_admissions_statistics_2014_cycle.pdf ). The statistics are well worth a look if you are intent upon an Oxbridge place regardless of subject!

Mindful of the economists’ adage that ‘prediction is difficult, particularly when it comes to the future,’ let me offer some thoughts.

  • We have surely reached a peak in student numbers. It is clear that simply increasing the supply of graduates has not increased the number of graduate level jobs. In purely commercial terms many graduates will never see financial benefit from the time and money invested in their degree study. After many years of expansion a number of universities will find it impossible to recruit sufficient students and will close or merge.
  • More employers will exclude academic and education details from their recruitment procedures and rely on on-line tests, selecting employees purely on the basis of a particular desired skill set. Of course a degree may well teach these skills but there may be other quicker ways to learn them in future. The accountancy giant Ernst & Young is the latest organisation to adopt this approach, although they will still look at degree and A level results towards the end of the selection process.
  • A good class of degree from a respected university will continue to confer many career and personal development benefits. However, for many students, who found GCSE and A level courses challenging, university study will not be the right option; the ‘conveyor belt’ from school to Sixth Form to university will be replaced by a more nuanced system. Many more students will join employers at 18 for a combination of work and study, opting for a salary rather than a debt and hoping to gain experience to support rapid promotion.
  • Degree courses in subjects such as Engineering, Medicine and Architecture will become yet more popular. Students will hope that these courses will lead directly to a good career and note that the skills needed cannot be obtained without a degree. The universities will expand the number of places on these courses to better balance supply and demand.
  • The softer skills essential for success in employment and life will come increasingly to the fore. The role that schools play through their sense of community and their extra-curricular programmes in developing qualities such as resilience, confidence, team work and communication skills in their pupils will be recognised afresh.

The free market seems to have rendered education increasingly subservient to the need to inculcate the skills and character pupils need for professional employment. I hope that schools will still retain something of the other purposes of education: to allow pupils to discover their aesthetic and spiritual faculties and their passions, to enhance their capacity for wonder, curiosity and imagination and to help them to learn to empathise, collaborate and serve.

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