In the UK, around 190,000 applicants will miss out on a place at university this year. But why are we so intent on sending half of the school population to university anyway? For some people, the case for taking up higher education just isn’t that strong.
Last week’s A-level results represented an increase in performance for the twenty-eighth consecutive year, with 97.6 per cent of examinations passed and 27 per cent passed with an A or the new A* grade. This led to predictable charges that A-levels – end-of-school exams taken by 18-year-olds in England and Wales – are becoming a debased currency, especially considering their role in selecting candidates for university places. The number of grades awarded at A* was more than 69,000 higher than predicted. Just four universities, including Cambridge, are asking for an A* grade, but there are far too many successful candidates for the new grade to act as a clear selection criteria for admission to the top universities.
Worse still, the introduction of the A* grade has re-opened the debate about the gap in achievement between independent schools and state comprehensives. At City of London Girls School, a top independent school, more than one in four grades awarded was an A*. The national figures show that a pupil is three times more likely to gain an A* grade in an independent school than at a state comprehensive. This provoked Lib-Con deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to denounce the middle-class dominance of university places. Add to this the disparity between the number of pupils taking A-levels in science and the situation is even worse. Four times as many independent school pupils sit at least one science A-level compared to their comprehensive school counterparts, according to the Confederation of British Industry.
With ministers in the coalition government trying to outdo each other in seeming most compassionate about the failure of education to create social mobility, you could be forgiven for getting a sense of déjà vu. David Willetts, the universities minister, has encouraged universities to be biased towards candidates from poor schools. ‘Maybe they have not got the highest academic qualifications but they’re clearly very bright’, he said. Vince Cable, the Lib-Con government’s skills secretary, has proposed a quota system, suggesting colleges could reserve places for pupils from a wide range of schools. It all sounds very New Labour.
The aim seems to be to squeeze as many kids as possible into university, without asking why. The arguments put forward for university education these days never mention the chance to rub shoulders with some of the best minds of our generation, or to take time out from the demands of the real world in order to immerse yourself in the pursuit of intellectual excellence. Instead, university is seen as the solution to a plethora of social problems, not least improving social mobility and raising the employment prospects of young people. One of the commonest reasons students give for studying the sciences at A-level is because they want to become a doctor. In other words, young people have taken on the idea that studies are simply something you do in order to get a job, and not an intellectual pursuit in themselves. For the majority, going to university after A-levels has become a kind of inefficient job-training scheme. It is little wonder that the dropout rate for first degrees is nine per cent.