12 August 2021

Stop telling kids they’re wrong to want to go to university


At first glance, it seems pretty obvious that this year’s A Level results are different. The number of top grades has soared. Far more people have found places in higher education. The older universities have hoovered up applicants.

Yet it is wrong to think of 2021 as out-of-kilter with the past. This year is more like a caricature of a normal year than a completely different picture. Many long-standing features that already existed have been exaggerated or accelerated, but they are not wholly new.

For example, the proportion of young people applying to higher education has been rising for years. While the 2021 figure will be higher than ever, and show a one-off step increase in the number of freshers, it is also part of a long-term upward trend.

Similarly, the tendency of the more elite institutions in the Russell Group to recruit more students is not a new phenomenon. Ever since the ending of student number caps put more power in the hands of applicants five years ago, there has been more interest in attending the universities that – rightly or wrongly – are towards the top of league tables.

Even the level of grade inflation is not unprecedented. Mark Corver of DataHE has pointed out that, before A*s were introduced around a decade ago, over one-in-four A-Level entries got what was then the top grade; this year, after everything, it is still less than one-in-five.

As many people who got their results this week are now on their way to university, it is worth recalling just how many predictions about higher education during Covid have turned out to be completely wrong.

For example, back in July 2020, the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicted a 10% drop in the number of UK undergraduate enrolments and said the fall could be as high as 20%. But young people are rational: when the job market is in flux, there are fewer apprenticeships than in the past and interesting gap years are unavailable, enrolling in university seems a no-brainer to many.

Others predicted the crisis would produce a one-off shift in how people experience higher education. Some thought old-fashioned lectures could become a thing of the past as people got used to online learning. We were also told that the traditional (and expensive) residential model of higher education, with three years spent living away from home, would never recover.

In May 2020, the World Economic Forum summed up the changed situation thus: ‘Covid-19 has struck our education system like a lightning bolt and shaken it to its core. Just as the First Industrial Revolution forged today’s system of education, we can expect a different kind of educational model to emerge from Covid-19.’

In many respects, the opposite has occurred. Even in the depth of the lockdown, most full-time young students sought to stay in their term-time accommodation. Poll after poll shows students want their face-to-face teaching, including their big lectures, back as soon as possible.

Those who thought university life would never recover seemed to think students prefer learning online from their parents’ homes rather than immersing themselves in new institutions in new cities with new friends. Why? The young people I meet are generally keen to leave home to get on with the next stage of their lives – and their parents often want the same.

Not everything is rosy of course. As a result of the higher grades and greater demand for certain courses this year, there are some painful pressure points. For example, some who just missed out on a university place due to their grades being lower than they hoped are finding it harder than usual to obtain an alternative place in UCAS’s clearing process. Others will find the institution that offered them a place originally may now try to welch on the deal, for example by encouraging them to defer until 2022.

Expanding institutions need rapidly to ensure they have the beds, the academic staff and the professional services staff to meet the expectations of their freshers. If universities get their staffing levels, accommodation provision or support services wrong, then the student experience will suffer.

But no one should doubt the level of positive aspiration among today’s young people. Nor, given employers’ demand for higher-level skills in a changing economy, should anyone tell this year’s freshers they are wrong to enrol in higher education. Most people who go to university do not regret their decision and they go on to enjoy lifelong benefits afterwards.

So I wish those enrolling this autumn all the best as they set out on the next step in their lives.

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Nick Hillman is Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX