More than half of A-level students “have no back-up plan” (hooray!)

Last week saw widespread reaction to a Which? University survey that announced 54% of UK students had no back-up plan should they fail to get the grades they need for their first choice University.
Personally, I don’t see this as a massive concern. In fact, I sense that it could be reason to be impressed.
Why do I fail to see this statistic as something sinister? Two reasons. Firstly, the statistics themselves were a little bit tortuous to understand, making me think that the presentation had “an agenda” (I read a summary of the details on the BBC website). Of course, my own views and agenda regarding University are well known, so I make sure to repeat them whenever I can (“I like universities, but I don’t think they should be promoted as the only route into meaningful employment”).
The other reason for being relaxed about this statistic is that “not-having-a-back-up-plan” in this situation suggests to me that at least some of the students don’t feel comfortable being corralled further into the next stage of academia as the only route to career fulfilment, and that they are going to see what happens before committing to a secondary plan.

At the point in their lives when these survey respondents face this decision, they possibly can’t recall a time when they weren’t on the academic hamster wheel. Maybe they want time out to reassess why and for what purpose they are taking exams? If the reason to study at university is merely to “have a good time” and “hope to find inspiration for a job”, then there really is need to pause and think.
These survey respondents have spent most of their time in a school system that seemingly encourages full time academic study as the primary goal in careers planning. I disagree, and I find it healthy that 54% of A-level students don’t have a back-up, as it hopefully forces them to consider a broad range of alternative options.

In order to write this post, I read the UCAS Clearing website. I think I refreshed my memory of what’s going on. It’s clear that there’s a cost to enter and it’s also clear that there are some qualifying criteria that determine whether an individual can or cannot use the clearing system.
What perhaps needs a bit more clarification is that clearing is a means by which the universities can fill as many empty places as possible (………….and in so doing secure funding and money). Inevitably, Universities therefore want to encourage as many students as possible to use the Clearing service and make a commitment to their courses.
The word “commit” is important. The qualifying rules suggest that students who have already met the grades for their first or reserve choice of university cannot enter clearing. This seems reasonable enough, but it does also suggest that some have historically tried to extricate themselves from a first choice offer, which contravenes some legally binding obligation (otherwise, why would this be addressed in the Frequently Asked Questions?)
If so, why and how have students not understood that to accept an offer conditional upon grades is binding? Has this vital detail been explained or withheld? I don’t know, but from my reading of the clearing pages, it wasn’t abundantly clear what, if any, binding obligation the student accepts when they complete an application process through “Clearing”.

The language and tone of the clearing system are all about options and possibility (along the lines of “Why not consider a different course?” or “why not take a year out and then reapply”), and therefore possibly consistent with the rest of the “university-centric” careers advice available to all students. The difference with clearing is that there is also a prominent message of time scarcity.

Within the Clearing information, there are useful caveats and recommendations to visit new campuses and talk to careers advisors, but underlying all that, there’s a sense of time pressure. Whilst the clearing system will work for many, my concern is that some individuals could be pressured into a decision that isn’t in their best long-term interests.

One might say that anyone who uses UCAS and clearing should be aware of what they are getting themselves into, and this is agreed. But we should be clear that clearing is to some extent a marketing device for universities, and the financial stakes are high. Caveat Emptor (let the buyer beware) is fine, but this life decision needs a counter-point and balance that is more obvious than at present within and beyond the UCAS system.

Of course, another possibility exists. That all 54% of the survey respondents without a back-up plan do want, and need to go to university, but have been inefficient (lazy?) in their planning and research. Surely this can’t be true for half of the student population? There’s no shortage of information, available in a multitude of user-friendly formats……… could so many students really be so lacking in self-management that they couldn’t be better prepared for an important life decision like university entrance?
If this is the case, and the education establishment know about it, then teachers and careers advisors should stop sugar-coating the pill, and give the students a kick up the backside. Employers need individuals who can demonstrate self-management, and they won’t be pleased to have employees who can’t manage themselves for such an important decisions. For the records, I suspect this isn’t what’s happened.
From what I know of employers, and what I know of their requirements for new staff, (full-time) tertiary education is not the only route into a meaningful career. We all need to ensure that this is understood by young adults as they make life decisions at school.

Sadly, we have notable instances of mis-selling in contemporary life (famously in financial services). Given the costs involved and the uncertain employment outcomes associated with university, my concern is that the great University access industry, of which clearing is a significant part, is in danger of becoming another such scandal. Students need more encouragement from employers to identify employment opportunities beside a degree. In the meantime, if some people are hesitating, and not rushing into clearing, then I think it might well be a cause to be relaxed and impressed.

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