A day at university clearing

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

The United Kingdom’s university sector is undoubtedly one of the best in the world. I work in this sector and this year, I had the opportunity to work as part of the university clearing process.

University clearing

I was up earlier than usual on a bright Thursday morning manning the phones as a constant stream of calls came in. The main thrust of clearing is to match students to a suitable university course for their undergraduate degree.

Many of the student didn’t quite achieve their predicted grades (and therefore lost offers) while others did better than expected and could “adjust up” to a different course.

Nothing can quite prepare you for what or who will be on the end of that phone-line, but as the calls come in and you converse with the person on the other end, you do feel a genuine sense of responsibility and willingness to reassure and help secure the best outcome for them.

Going to university is a huge investment. New, higher tuition fees combined with living costs mean students who make the decision to study at university today expect and demand a lot more for their fees.

The increase in costs however hasn’t dampened student numbers as many, were prophesying. The number of people offered a place at a UK university has now hit a record 442,900 — 3% up on 2015.

In addition, a poll by the Sutton Trust, show that even though fees have increased, there is a growing proportion of students who believe it is likely they will go to university, up from 71% in 2003 to 77% today.

Under a Conservative majority Government, more and more people are going to university and according to the Sutton Trust, even more now want to go!

Prospective students recognise the value of a degree in a globally competitive job market and instead of shunning the new higher fees, students have been weighing up the long-term benefits of a university degree whilst also becoming a lot more savvy and demanding in what a university will offer. This is a good thing…

In the same way you take out a loan to buy a house. Not many people can afford to buy a property up-front, but recognise the value of owning their own bricks and mortar; higher education is no different.

Universities, like businesses must compete, innovate and continuously deliver a good service for students. For example, universities have to offer great facilities, great teaching, opportunities to work, study abroad schemes and personalise courses like never before.

The days of a standard three-year degree programme where everyone learns the same way, does the same essays and finishes with a dissertation are numbered.

Many universities, like the one I work for offer the chance to do a consultancy project or internship instead of a dissertation. Courses are designed with the help of businesses so that students and employers can be more certain and confident that what they are learning will ultimately contribute to getting them noticed and employed once they leave.

Soon, universities will rely on a name and a gilded history at their peril.

Creating a university sector fit for the 21st century

The new White Paper titled, “Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility & Student Choice by Jo Johnson (Universities Minister) will lead to a radical shake up of the sector with the aim of improving competition and putting students first. Conservative reforms shift the power from the big institution at State to the individual, the little guy, the consumer.

The White Paper has three areas of focus;

1. Creating a competitive market

2. Improving choice for students

3. Updating the regulatory architecture

The world is vastly different today than it was in 1992 when the last major reform of the higher education sector was carried out and this White Paper and its positive reforms, are long overdue.

It is a key Conservative tenet that taxpayers receive value for money and archaic, convoluted processes which may once have been the norm cannot be justified where there are clear, efficient and robust new processes that can take their place.

Of course the slogans of free education (there is no such thing as someone always has to pay) will continue to ring out from various political and entrenched special interest groups. I hope Jo Johnson and this Government stay strong and move forward with delivering the proposals set out in the White Paper.

“Free education”

Shifting the cost of higher education from the state to the individual who will benefit over the long term is a positive step which helps to put student finance on a sustainable footing.

Research commissioned by the BIS shows a net lifetime earnings premium comfortably over £100,000 compared to holding two or more A-Levels. The higher cost of higher education is also not only important in fostering a greater sense of personal responsibility, but also ensuring that in a globalised and inter-connected world, taxpayers are not left picking up the tab for someone to use their expertise gained from a UK university somewhere else.

A clear example of where this has happened is Greece. Research from the University of Macedonia shows that, 185,388 Greek University graduates have left Greece from 1990 through to 2015. Of these, 139,041 left the country since 2010. Many of these student have moved to the United Kingdom and I welcome them with open arms.

Young, bright, educated Greeks coming to strengthen and improve our economy and their careers is great news for our country. What about the cost to the Greek State and taxpayer though? Millions of £ will have been spent educating these students, but the country will not immediately benefit from their contribution.

Herein lies a pitfall of “free” education. It may appear “free” at first, but what is the cost to countries like Greece when their best and brightest move abroad for a better life? You can’t force people to not leave…

This “free” structure may have worked to a certain extent when it wasn’t so easy to hop on a plane and settle in another country with brighter economic prospects, but it simply doesn’t work in the 21st century.

Jobs jobs jobs!

Many students go to university because it will improve their chances of getting a job. As well as receiving A-Level results last week, eagle-eyed students may have also seen that once again, a Conservative Government is delivering record employment figures, which should give students more confidence when making the choice to study at university.

Between January to March 2016 and April to June 2016, the number of people in work increased by 172,000 and 606,000 more than for a year earlier!

Average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain are also up by 2.4% compared to a year earlier.

The road ahead

Reforming our economy has not been easy. Neither will be reforming the higher education sector. If one thing is certain though, it is that the Conservative Government is delivering on its election promises and giving more people than ever the opportunity to get ahead.

More people going to university, more people getting a paycheck. A record we can be proud of.

As I finished my shift on Thursday afternoon, I felt I had played a small yet important role in helping prospective students receive an offer for a place at university. There were tears, there were shouts of jubilation and importantly, there was a sense students were genuinely excited and positive about making an investment in their future.

Note: higher education and university have been used interchangeably in this article.