These are exciting times for school leavers; perhaps also a little scary, but there are an increasing range of options out there for the A level student, and this may bring to an end the culture of the past 25 years which has seen such students going on to university as a matter of course. The prospect of building up significant debt (as much as £40-50,000 when all costs are taken into account), and a superfluity of courses that are deemed by some to have devalued the ‘currency’ of a degree, have made many bright school leavers question whether university is for them.
The number of students applying for university places is down by nearly 9% on last year, and while this is partly a reflection of last year’s rush to apply before the rise in tuition fees, the number of undergraduates is unquestionably in decline. This picture is compounded by recently published figures stating that nearly a third of university courses have been dropped in the past six years. It may be the case that, by default rather than design, degrees may return to their original raison d’être of being for those who really want to study their subject for its own sake, rather than – necessarily – as the first rung on the career ladder.
Employers have been quick to spot this, and a number of the UK’s leading companies are now offering the bright school leaver a genuine (and profitable) alternative to university. They hope to attract some of the best students into a combined programme of study and work experience, by the end of which the ‘student’ is eminently employable, qualified and free of debt. Some companies, such as Deloittes, have even established direct links with specific universities to offer the best of both worlds, even offering to pay university tuition fees as part of the package.
So what does all this mean for schools? At Framlingham, while we expect the majority of our students to continue to opt for a university education, we are also keen that this is a properly informed decision and that they are aware that there are equally valid alternative options. The university world itself is fast-changing. There are now increasingly attractive (and relatively cheap) alternatives in Europe, the US, the Far East and elsewhere, all offering courses taught in English. For many years, ‘careers’ advice in schools such as ours has essentially been universities advice, and this is no longer good enough. In this increasingly complex area, parents and pupils will look to schools as an expert resource to guide and to advise, both on the expanding university options and on the non-university route. If it makes students really think about planning their future, rather than routinely opting to go into further education because it is ‘just what you do’, then I think this will only be a good thing: for the students, the universities and the UK and world economy.
Paul Taylor, Headmaster
- This article was published in the Education Supplement of the East Anglian Daily Times on Wednesday 29th March, 2012