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Choosing a University

Dr Stone with pupil

The university application round is in full swing; at Stockport Grammar School many of our Upper Sixth students have now made an application with most of the rest to be completed over the next few weeks.

The teaching staff involved with the Sixth Form work incredibly hard to offer individual advice and support, suggesting courses to uncertain students, reading endless drafts of personal statements and synthesising dozens of teacher comments to craft the perfect school reference, cunningly designed to tempt even the most hard-bitten of university admissions tutors into offering a sought-after spot on a competitive course to an aspirational applicant.

Having been through the process as a parent relatively recently I can sympathise with the emotional maelstrom, creeping uncertainty and general paralysis that afflicts most of the students and many of the parents. The scale of the choice is immense and the consequences of the decisions reached seem both long-lasting and far-reaching with enormous costs for student and parent now incurred.

Most students begin by attempting to choose a subject: an easy activity only for the few who find some strong inner vocation towards say Classics, Geography or Physics. Non-school subjects such as Medicine, Accountancy or Law hold out the tantalising possibility of a fresh start and a passport to secure employment but at the cost of unfamiliarity. Work experience can help reassure the tentative applicant but cannot reproduce the experience of university study. For most students the hope is that a clear choice emerges from considerations of subjects enjoyed at school, with some attempt to discount the effect of one’s favourite teacher who will not be there in higher education, a nod towards parental preference and an eye on employment prospects after graduation and the grades that may be required to gain access to a ‘good’ university.

‘Good’ in this context is, of course, hard to define. The Russell Group appear to have established something of an oligarchy through claiming to represent a kite-mark of quality for their 24 research-intensive member institutions. I wonder, however, whether there is a significant difference between the bottom part of the Russell Group and the best of the universities outside it. In any case is a thriving research programme really likely to enhance the teaching of a first year undergraduate course?

Grade requirements are similarly slippery. The UCAS website indicates the level of likely offers, but experience over the last few years suggests that if a student does not reach their offer on A level UCASresults day they may well be accepted even if the target is missed by up to 2 grades. The best analogy for this curious process is probably booking hotel rooms. Hotels wish to advertise a high price in order to assure their potential guests of a reassuringly expensive and high-quality experience but then discount the prices surreptitiously in order to fill their rooms. My own alma mater of Cambridge University, for example, has recently raised its published grade requirements for many science courses to A*A*A, presumably hoping to establish or perhaps reinforce at least a perception of superiority over Oxford and Imperial College. The number of applicants to Cambridge has now dropped, however, and it remains to be seen whether a candidate achieving a mere A*AA next summer will still be admitted; Oxford, on the other hand, has lower published grade requirements and has seen an increase in application numbers which will presumably allow the admissions tutors to be more choosy when A level grades are known. This intricate set of unwritten rules encourages teachers to over-predict students’ likely A level grades in order to ensure that they receive, and then accept, university offers of inappropriately high demand before failing to gain the necessary grades but being admitted anyway. At Stockport Grammar School we have acquired real expertise in judging how high to aim to maximise the students’ chances of success, without misrepresenting the situation or leaving the students struggling to achieve the necessary grades. However, I can’t help thinking that it must put off some students, perhaps at schools with less experience of supporting UCAS applications, from applying to the ‘good’ universities.

Unconditional offers have also become prevalent. Institutions hoping to scoop up ‘good’ candidates simply remove the grade requirements altogether if the student will commit to the institution. This unhelpful practice removes any stress from the student but it also removes any motivation to study, reducing the final A level grades achieved. The impression is that the university is simply interested in ‘bums on seats’ rather than finding the right students who will benefit from the course offered.

Once a subject has been chosen, at least for now, the search for five institutions begins, with the discouraging certainty that four of the choices will be of no consequence. This is equally tricky. Searching for History courses on the UCAS web site reveals 1,452 courses from 116 universities (or providers as they are now known). How to proceed? UCAS is strictly neutral and produces no league tables of desirability. Perhaps deleting Blackburn College on grounds of unfamiliarity or lack of reputation is reasonable or perhaps it reveals only an unimaginative snobbishness. How to compare the universities of Sheffield and Birmingham? Geography sometimes helps; the university should be at a conveniently substantial distance from home to establish real independence from watchful parents but not so far away that travel costs at the start and end of each term become prohibitive.

Careers Room

A visit to an open day may aid decision making but most universities employ event managers to maximise the quality of the ’visit experience’ for parent and student: this seems destined to ensure that all such events become increasingly homogeneous and packaged, making them less and less useful as a means of distinguishing between institutions. A complimentary pen, a large set of which now reside in my jacket pocket, may be welcome but is unlikely to sway a decision on choice of institution.

A wealth of statistical information is now available to the diligent, ranging from students’ satisfaction with different aspects of an institution’s teaching to the likely salaries after graduation and the cost of accommodation. This causes some applicants to obsess over tiny variations; how much significance should be attributed to the apparent fact that 92% of History undergraduates at Birmingham feel that the staff have made the subject interesting whilst 93% of their peers at Sheffield feel the same? Perhaps the West Midlands undergraduates have higher expectations than their South Yorkshire brethren or perhaps the former are worryingly close to a downwards spiral of depressive disillusionment.

It seems near miraculous that any student ever reaches the point of application. The paradox, familiar from many contexts in the information age, from supermarkets to entertainment, is that wider choice and greater information may lead to poorer decision making as students, overloaded with data, simply abandon the rational in favour of gut instinct and the preferences of their peer group.

Nevertheless, most current university students seem happy with their lot, perhaps because they have no means of comparing their course with a possible experience at another institution or perhaps because market forces have caused standards and experiences at different universities to converge. It may also be a comfort to learn that whilst future employment and financial prospects are influenced by institution, degree subject is at least as important.