The year has started, as always, with a lot of time being spent on helping sixth-formers with their personal statements for their UCAS applications, and supporting them in making those agonised decisions: Is it to be Edinburgh or Nottingham for Veterinary Medicine? Should I apply for the course with the year in industry or the one with the year abroad? Which Oxford college should I apply for?
In some cases, the decisions are rather more fundamental. Some kids are fascinated by many things and could imagine studying them all (there are some combined courses that allow a fair amount of freedom, but they are relatively few and not that popular). Others really aren’t convinced about anything in particular – they aren’t passionate about any of their subjects, or any particular career, but feel they ought to apply anyway.
I’ve always been a believer in “if you don’t know, don’t apply”. There’s no harm done in taking a year out to think about it and a gap year before starting university can be a chance to see the world (if you are lucky) or at least earn some money, whereas starting on the “wrong” course is likely to be problematic; if you’re fortunate you can just swap over to one you’re more suited to, but this isn’t always possible and may have financial implications. However, there are arguments the other way – sixth formers who haven’t applied sometimes find it harder to motivate themselves to get high grades at A-level, and sometimes the need to make the decision in itself helps clarify their thinking.
It is interesting how many people’s views change on what they want to do with their lives as well. Over the last year I’ve been in contact with three previous pupils (from the same school year) who have now graduated, and are looking at doing post-graduate Medicine. Whilst two were on the science side, the third studied English Literature. I’ve also talked to a couple of pupils who started on undergraduate Medicine and have changed to completely different areas. Half of me says we should make Medicine and the other vocational degrees entirely post-grad entry; it is very young at 17 to know what you want to do with your life, and parents’ influence is likely to be substantial. I’ve heard more than one academic say they prefer the post-grad medics to the undergrad ones as they already know how to study, are more mature and much more motivated.
Additionally, there are undoubtedly some sixth formers who are eminently capable of getting a degree, but for whom university is not the right choice at 18 or 19; some are fed up with studying, some would be better off getting a job and coming back to study later (having had the opportunity to mature a little), and some may simply not be interested in pursuing the academic route. I don’t find many who are prepared to admit they’re in this category – getting into some university, somehow, seems to be the preferred option. Unfortunately, the likely consequence of such an ill-judged application is dropping out or a poor degree.
Whilst opening up university education to many more people is desirable on many levels, creating a situation where it is a default rather than a choice is most certainly not; the idea that proceeding to a degree course is as automatic and natural as the transition from primary to secondary school is just not helpful. And whilst we have moved a little away from the model of the full-time 18 year old student being the automatic default, we still need to make it easier for those in other categories who are keen to, and able to, gain a degree, to avoid the push to a rushed decision at 17.
The OU, of course, has been the traditional route for such mature or part-time students. I love the OU dearly and have a great deal of loyalty to it, but there are some courses it doesn’t offer and others it can’t do as well – and as a student experience, it is very very different. I know that many of the newer universities do have a fair number of “unconventional” students as undergraduates, but the Russell group rather less so. Whilst I certainly wouldn’t want the Russell group to compromise their academic excellence, perhaps they could be doing more to accommodate the mature and/or part-time student? An increase in flexibility has to benefit us all.