This is a guest post by a parent whose daughter is going through the UCAS application process.
‘Ping!’ the phone blurts.
‘Ping!’ it blurts again. As every parent knows this constant pinging of messages on your offspring’s phone is a nudge out of your current task and a call to arms.
I was just about to launch into my usual ‘what are you doing on your phone all the time?’ parental speech when my daughter spoke first. ‘Another unconditional!’ she exclaimed. She informed that as it was university application season, offers for places were coming through for her friends at a rate of knots.
After a full interrogation, it turns out that pretty much all of her friends have received unconditional offers to read a variety of subjects, such as Chemistry, Geography, Biomedicine, History, at prestigious Russell Group universities, such as Nottingham, Birmingham, York, to name a few. Lower down the pecking order unconditional are being handed out like confetti. What’s going on? It was supposed to be really hard to get into uni. All that time studying for GCSEs, doing work experience, volunteering, playing school sport on a Saturday morning, all designed to help write the personal statement. Did it really matter?
Although it may be very flattering to receive an unconditional offer for university, you have to realise that it’s not personal. You want to believe that the university of your choice has specifically selected you because you are gifted and talented. Although that may be true, it’s actually more about the ‘bums on seats’ principle. What it signifies is that there is a seismic shift taking place at universities. You see universities are no longer seats of learning, they are businesses. What’s the difference? Well, the difference is that they want to make money, they have to make money, lots of money or they won’t survive.
They have become money machines and the quid pro quo therefore is that they must focus on student satisfaction and VFM (value for money); not things they were bothered about 30 years ago. What does it mean? Well, you think you are paying for nice teachers who will spoonfeed you to a career-launching degree, but, of course, although they can guarantee that you have a ‘good time’, there are no guarantees of a First or a job; can’t do that. Nowadays, there are league tables for universities where the position in the league depends on these student satisfaction factors. Prospective students and parents scour these tables, make their selections and want to know what they are going to get for their money. However, this is where I believe the universities (and the government) have to be careful because the system is very opaque.
All of this opens the door to potential disillusionment and dissatisfaction when students leave university and eventually realise that they can’t find the dream job, that they believe university made little difference to their prospects and that they found the journey unsuitably hard, collecting humongous debt pile along the way. They were missold.
Faiz Siddiqui is currently suing Oxford University, claiming that poor teaching of a module led to him graduating with a 2:1 instead of the First he expected. This ‘failure’ has affected his career choices and consequently he now suffers from depression.
This is a shame for Faiz. What it signifies is the disconnection between what he thought he was buying and what he actually bought. Whether he wins the case or not is immaterial, it’s what it represents that matters. More and more students are going to end up submerged in debts and feel that they have been ‘missold’ their life opportunity when it turns out that studying Geography at Leicester doesn’t lead to a path paved with gold. There’ll be disappointment and a raft of class action court cases to follow and eventually one will win, opening the floodgates.
Universities can now offer an unlimited number of places to students so they have decided to ‘fill their boots’ before the government imposes a cap on the number of students at any institution. By offering unconditionals they are pushing students to accept the offer so that way the universities have certainty of the numbers attending over the coming year. That’s good business planning. What they are not taking into account is the standard of the students and whether the students will struggle when they arrive on the course. The problem with unconditionals is that they are conditional, the unconditional part is only valid if the student firms that place as their number one choice. Many students do this for the security, but there is a massive knock-on effect; they are less likely to try very hard to achieve high grades because they don’t need to. You can relax, three Cs will do. The problem with that is that employers down the line may be very concerned about someone’s ability. Many employers I speak to say that they focus on assessing and comparing A level grades as a filter rather than the murky waters of which degree and university. Most students don’t realise and are lured into a trap.
Meanwhile, back at home, my daughter has received offers but alas no unconditionals, however, as I’ve been telling her ‘that’s a good thing, right?’ She’s not convinced!