In the Higher Education news…

Ahhh… nice to be enjoying the Christmas break! Though those sixth form reports due almost as soon as we get back do slightly take the shine off.

Anyway, I’ve had a bit more time to have a browse through national newspapers’ take on educational matters. Quite a few of them are talking about university admissions and such – always a hot topic. The Telegraph, almost inevitably, are running a scare story – here, it’s about the increase in “unconditional offers” made by Russell Group universities such as Birmingham, Nottingham and QMW.  This will, they reckon, cause students to give up on working for their A-levels and lead to a decline in standards… (doesn’t everything lead to a decline in standards according to the Telegraph?).  The fact that almost unconditional offers have been around for a long time seems to have passed them by – I had an insurance offer of 1 E grade from Manchester, for example, back in 1985. The idea that the sort of student to whom such offers are made will usually have a bit more pride and foresight than to just abandon their A-levels seems to have passed them by too.  My own concern about this policy is the pressure it puts on the student to choose that particular university – one of my own pupils had a regular offer from Birmingham, but they offered to make it unconditional if she made them her firm choice. Fortunately, she didn’t succumb to the quite natural temptation (her actual choice suits her far better than Birmingham would have) but it was hard to turn it down. At least my 1 E from Manchester was an offer on the table without requiring me to make them my first choice.

The Independent are reporting the results of a survey showing that Oxbridge students from “disadvantaged” backgrounds go on to earn more than their peers from families with a university tradition. They quote an average figure without telling us whether it is statistically significant…. I am inclined to doubt it is, given the huge variation seen in starting salaries anyway. They endeavour to make a link between this and some other research which suggests that when students with identical A-levels are compared, those with the disadvantaged backgrounds tend to do better academically at university (the paper doesn’t quote it quite like this. But I have read it myself, so have endeavoured to be a little more accurate than a journalist).  Personally, I doubt the two are linked.  Firstly, it is presupposing an automatic link between academic success and income. No!   Sure, getting a poor degree class may seriously damage your prospects. But getting a top first rather than a bare first, or even a first rather than a 2:1, is really not likely to. There’s still a few people around who equate first with “swot with no life”, and also a number of those with top degrees will be going into research – and that certainly doesn’t offer a good salary!

The second piece of research makes absolute sense to me – if student 1 has got grades A*A*A at a school where very few get such grades and without much help at home, and student 2 has got those grades in a school focused on high achievers and with every possible external support, then I’d feel the grades said more about student 1 than about student 2. Not that it makes it definite at all –  but a much smaller proportion of “student 2″s are likely to be exceptional than “student 1″s.

The first piece of research may well have another explanation, I think. If you are from a background without a university tradition, then surely you are likely to feel rather more pressure to demonstrate that the three years spent and huge debt incurred is worthwhile – and in that context, hefty earnings are likely to be seen as an unambiguous demonstration. This may push such students to go for the well-paid job over the one that they might actually prefer.

The Times Higher Education highlights the increasing number of students who do not achieve their predicted grades at A-level.  Although it does not say so, it seems to be seeing this as a problem with student achievement rather than a problem with predictions.  I think it is unambiguously the latter.  When I was at school, we didn’t officially know our predicted grades. Now obviously there are issues with that – people didn’t always know whether it was realistic to apply to certain universities, for example. These days, kids do know their predicted grades. Not only that, they argue about them – and so do their parents.  The fact is,  we are already endeavouring to predict as generously as we realistically can – i.e. the highest grade they might have a chance of, if they work hard and consistently from now on, and get lucky with the questions in the exam. But no, that is not good enough. We, the teachers, are blighting their entire future by refusing to predict them 3 grades higher than the best work we have ever seen from them. So guess what happens?   The disparity is also exacerbated by the tendency of some pupils to think that, having argued you up to predicting them an A grade (when you really thought they’d be very lucky to get the B you’d originally put), that means that they will automatically get the A if they carry on working in the same way that got them a low C at AS….     I am not quite sure what I would do about this, but I guess one option might be to put a range of grades – if I put A*-C for a range, then perhaps the university could interpret this as “currently on a C, but if pulls finger out could well get a B and maybe even an A”?

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One Response to In the Higher Education news…

  1. sarah evans says:

    I agree with all of this. I wonder what universities would say about the predicted grade situation. They must be aware of what happens? The only thing I would add is that re your student 1 and student 2, I think the educational background of the parent makes a big difference there too. If the 3 A* student 2 is at a low achieving school because of parents’ political views, and the parents are graduates, I am not sure it necessarily means they are super bright – they have huge privileges at home and tend to be feted and made a great fuss of by their teachers. A child with non-immigrant, non-graduate parents at a low achieving school who gets 3 A*s however probably is very special.

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