Universities are certainly not going anywhere. Nor should they. But let’s address this head on: University is not for everyone. Nor does it have to be. There are plenty of students nowadays who would rather go straight to work and there is a growing number of schemes to cater for  them. A lot of those students point to tuition fees as the reason. It is, however, still the path most trodden amongst A level students in most schools. Why? For every reason that you have likely ever heard. And let’s be honest, here are a lot of well-worn sound bites on why to attend university, e.g.“it is the natural progression from school”, “better jobs”, “higher earnings”, “life experience” and so on. Arguably there is a truth in all of those – and strong evidence to support them - but not an absolute truth. The recent report by the Sutton Trust, whose aim is to improve social mobility in the UK, would imply the value of attending university, even if it is highlighted through one-sided statistics; it rather points to what it observes as a disparity and gap between those in the top jobs and where they studied versus the rest. As we know though, statistics usually tend to prove the point that you want to make; as with any report or any league table, do exercise a degree of common sense as you sift through the jargon.

There is also a growing trend for universities to offer unconditional places and for the grade threshold to be relaxed in Clearing in order to get more students in to fill the spaces. Do use caution here: an unconditional offer is attractive but it should not be seen as a disincentive to getting good grades; they will still count on your future CV. Equally, the lower grade requirements of universities in Clearing may seem like a golden ticket if you have missed your choices. However, there is limited value in a knee-jerk reaction, especially if it is wrong. The growing trend is that those who accept Clearing places that are demonstrably different from their original offers do not last the course before looking to change. This is a prime example of the above argument; be sure.

Deciding whether university is worth it or not depends on what value you place on ‘worth’. The ‘worth’ of a university is inextricably linked to ‘outcomes’ and for the vast majority of graduates that means gainful employment. A degree that gets a young person on a graduate training scheme is worth its weight in gold; an Oxbridge Law degree, for example, may be a prerequisite in securing a job with one of the Magic Circle Law Firms such as Linklaters or Slaughter and May. The fact though that ‘worth’ is in question means there is enough ambiguity nowadays in this debate. The fact is, it is not quite so clear cut anymore.

Post 1945, the number of those attending university started to grow with the help of government schemes. A 2% enrolment then has turned to a near 45% population attendance at university now (2019). In fact, the Higher Education Policy Institute reckons that another 300,000 places will be required over the next 11 years. Why? With Polytechnics phased out, the number of universities continues to grow with the rise of private institutions, and so too do the numbers of places available to students. What has been achieved by widening participation? It has led to this very title question being asked. It has arguably also created an artificial view of the purpose of university, in my opinion. University is a right but it is not a necessity. It is a goal to be aspired to but it must have a purpose.

However, does that make it the right move to simply take up one of these places, or does it just make it ‘an option’? The two need to be seen differently and never more so than at this period in the academic calendar. Clearing induces a sense of panic and an artificial view that you will need to be adept at horse trading; (the reality is quite different and far more impersonal).

To encapsulate the answer to the question in the title, it really should be framed as, ‘yes, but only if it is the right university and it is what you want’. The right university is the one that gives you the quality of learning and experience now that you will continue to benefit from in the future. It is one that offers you an opportunity to learn something that interests you, as well as giving you opportunities afterwards.

‘What you want’ is arguably more important as it is the student making the decision to study there for three years and with all that comes with it. If we consider the tertiary level landscape: more recently established universities are doing really well with newer courses – the University of Bournemouth, for example, for Visual Media. Newer universities are better for vocational degrees, and in turn yield higher graduate recruitment rates as the big media companies will do the milk rounds at these universities. However, if you want to study a more traditional degree you would, and arguably should, aspire to one of the older Russell Group universities.

Where your degree is from and what it is in is relevant. A visual arts degree from Bournemouth will be attractive to an advertising firm in the same way that Land Economy from Reading is highly rated by Society of Chartered Surveyors. Note that in both examples the degree is relevant to the job and the universities are considered ‘top’ institutions in the respective fields. Recent graduates in these subjects have transferrable skills as well as the kudos of having attended reputable institutions.

A Humanities-based degree from, say, a non-Russell Group university is unlikely to impress potential employers unless the applicant stands out by having impressive work experience or entrepreneurial skills. Newer non-Russell Group places may well provide a fantastic education but the ‘value’ or worth of one of their degrees will be assessed, rightly or wrongly, by the opinions and perceptions of recruiters. First Class Honours in Maths from Imperial College London carries sufficient prestige as such that any scrutiny of the course modules is rendered almost meaningless. Unfair perhaps, but that’s the real world.

In crude terms, this is an expensive decision and therefore you do not want it to be an expensive mistake.The point being, take your time in the results market.

 

What are the other options?

Retakes. Once the dirty word in many circles, this is not a controversial term anymore. Let this be the last time you associate them with negative connotations. Indeed, no one would wish to be in that situation but being so does not mean failure. It simply means that more time is required to reach the higher level.

With the national statistics proving that a huge proportion of students take gap years now, students should be encouraged to remove the stumbling block of not graduating with their friends and seriously consider whether a retake might be a better option in order to get to where they want to be, even if it is a year from now. It should speak volumes that nearly all universities now consider retake applicants, (with notable exceptions, e.g. in medicine), in the same category as first-time applicants based on merit. There is strength to be found in getting something right the second time around whilst dealing with the initial disappointment.

That is not to say that retakes are a formality to getting a higher grade. There is no magic wand and in the new system of A level educational reforms you are required to take all the examinations again. However, given the appropriate amount of time – i.e. not a last-minute decision next summer – to work at these modules again there is every chance of improving by at least one grade or more. More importantly though, what we – and many institutions – find is that Year 14 can really make a student.

One of the principal things I have learnt over the years is that only you can make your decisions. The choice is and will remain yours. The advice I would give though is know why you are doing something before you do it and not to rush into something if it is not right. You will always have other options.

 

Defining worth

Is the course worth it?

  • Will you enjoy it? What will it teach you? Will it be useful (from a skills perspective if not a learning perspective)?

Is it worth the money?

  • Advice: don’t get too exercised about fees. Think more about whether this will help you later on. Like most things in life, it is an investment and in this sense one for your future.

What will I gain from it/is it linked to outcomes?

  • Is this course going to help you with a career or are you taking it for the sake of saying you are going to university?

Am I prepared to make the most of the opportunity in front of me?

  • Arguably the most important because if this is being done for the right reasons and it is approached with the right mindset then it is certainly worth it.

If I took my time, could I achieve more?

  • Are you ready to settle or is there something more that you could achieve if you take your time? That is when retakes become worth it.

This article was written by James Barton, Director of Recruitment,  MPW London

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