For better or worse, our universities are hierarchical. It’s why A-levels matter | Nick Hillman | Opinion


The job of university admissions offices has been likened to landing a jumbo jet on a postage stamp. In their last year of school, pupils apply for up to five courses through Ucas. Universities then decide how many deserve the offer of a place, based on how many offers are usually accepted and then matched on results day.

It is a difficult task even in a normal year, yet the costs of getting it wrong are huge. If an institution under-recruits, it will have spare places, empty beds and financial problems. If it over-recruits, it will have overcrowded seminars, a worse staff-student ratio and discontented students, hitting league table positions.

This year, the job is impossible to do properly. The exams were cancelled and, in their place, we have rough-and-ready results with sharp edges. A teacher relative of mine showed me data for one class at her comprehensive school. Everyone expected to receive grades A to C but, in the event, half received D to U.

Some high-performing applicants who had expected to slide into selective universities and afterwards into gilded careers feel like they have slipped into black holes. The algorithm for awarding grades may have seemed neutral when it was devised but, in practice, it has reflected and magnified societal divisions. The rise in top grades at private schools is 4.7%, 15 times more than the 0.3% at further education colleges.

There is an appeals process, but individuals cannot appeal directly and the grounds for appeal are limited, plus, where an appeal succeeds, it may be too late to get the university place you want.

The main entrance to University College London



The main entrance to University College London: ‘The UK is meant to have the most autonomous universities in the developed world.’ Photograph: SFL Travel/Alamy Stock Photo

Universities want to help where they can and many will have spare capacity as international students stay away. Most want to diversify their intakes, but they are not free agents. The UK is meant to have the most autonomous universities in the developed world, yet, bizarrely, ministers have responded to the pandemic by imposing a system of student number caps on English universities, with big financial penalties for over-recruitment.

Many challenges posed by the pandemic are the same across the world, but the UK’s university admissions round has one important difference. In two-thirds of European countries, living with your parents is the most common type of student accommodation. In the UK, eight in 10 full-time students leave home to study.

Aside from the extra challenges in terms of social distancing, mass residential education encourages a diversity and hierarchy of institutions. People don’t just look to their local institution but much further afield. When our university admissions system works well, it is like the Sorting Hat process at Hogwarts, finding the best match between person and place.

This year’s school leavers have been told for years that the world is their oyster. They were told they would have a particularly wide set of options because they are, relatively speaking, such a small group. Apart from 1976-78, 2001 and 2002 were the only years since the Second World War when fewer than 600,000 babies were born in England and Wales – those babies are today’s 18- and 19-year-olds.

So they had been expecting unprecedented choice, with universities falling over each other to recruit them. This year was on course to be the least painful admissions round in living memory. But it is instead a terrible time to be leaving any educational institution: no school proms, no normal exam results and no freshers’ weeks. This is encouraging all sorts of wild predictions about the future. Some say the results mess shows why we should move to continuous teacher-led assessments rather than putting all our eggs in a basket labelled “public exams”. Others say the era of big physical university campuses will end as online learning takes over.

But it is not just their limited numbers that make this generation of school leavers special: they and their families also have especially high aspirations. When they were at primary school, their mothers were asked about their children’s futures as part of the Millennium Cohort Study. A staggering 97% said they wanted their offspring to go to university.

Freshers' week at Aberystwyth University in 2015



Freshers’ week at Aberystwyth University in 2015: none will take place this year. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Those children are now itching to go away as planned. After all, you do not just go to university to study, you go to get away from home, make new friends and journey to adulthood in a secure environment. This is particularly important this year, after so long spent in the claustrophobic atmosphere of lockdown. That is why, against many of the predictions, more young people, including more disadvantaged young people, have secured a place in higher education this year. And they want a traditional university experience when they get there, ideally alongside other students because they know learning is a social endeavour.

A traditional experience won’t always be possible, due to social distancing, but universities want to provide it. They wouldn’t have built up such vast physical presences if they had wanted to be virtual institutions. Real, as opposed to online, lectures and social events will return as soon as they can. In the meantime, a bigger concern than entry rates is likely to be drop-out rates. New students will be less well prepared than their predecessors, having generally done no school work since March. They could also find it harder to integrate, as freshers’ fairs and social events are postponed or cancelled. They won’t all survive the distance.

In moments of doubt, new students should recall that higher education generally works out, with graduates tending to earn more and live longer. But the journey is not always smooth, so institutions are putting in place more online and face-to-face support for those who need extra help or have second thoughts – and accessing this should be recognised as the act of bravery it is, rather than evidence of being a snowflake.

Before anyone does drop out, they should remember that, even if their initial year of university life is disrupted, it is the least important one, academically and socially. As Evelyn Waugh put in Brideshead Revisited, you may even “find you spend half your second year shaking off the undesirable friends you made in your first”.

Nick Hillman is the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute



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