Opinion: When should we apply to University?

640px-Question_exclamation.svgCurrently students apply to university by 15 January and are made provisional offers based on predicted grades. These provisional places given in the application process are based on the predicted grades, but fewer than 10% receive correct predictions for all their subjects. Ignoring this fact, exams start in late May, with results being published in mid-August. Those without a place (about 40,000 a year) apply through the clearing system for vacancies. The academic year then starts in late September or early October.

It has been proposed by UCAS that exams be brought forward by 15 days, starting in early May, and that results be published by early July, before term ends. As part of this, the marking process would be sped up, allowing students to make applications having received their results; the element of doubt as to whether or not you would be qualified to attend a particular university would be removed. Another consequence would be that no university should start their academic year until 8 October. Such a change would be the first major reform to the system since 1961.

All this is described as being necessary to avoid student anguish and the hit and miss nature of their telephoning universities to see if they can get a place, relying on hope as to whether they can get through or not. We have a system that is complex, which lacks transparency for many students, and is inefficient and frenzied at this time of the year.

I suspect that the reason this has come to the fore now is that the larger number of students in the system has created an even more frenzied and stressful time for the universities. The students just had to put up with it in the past. Now the universities are also faced with more competition for students, which must also be driven by money considerations, a bye product of the tuition fees system. This has developed into a farcical situation whereby universities are offering free lap tops and gym membership to students as sweeteners, resulting in students shopping around, asking, ‘what are you going to offer me when I can get such and such from this other university?’ I think the universities want to get away from this.

Practically, the change in dates should not be a problem for schools, but it may feel too tight a schedule for some subjects in some schools. Universities starting around 8th October is not much of a change, some do not start until then anyway. So you gain 2 weeks. The marking is going to be sped up. Ha, ha: How often have we heard of marking fiascoes in recent years, and why that was? If it was not due to political reasons then it was because of inadequate funding in the exam system. There are not enough full time staff running the exam boards, and many markers are also teaching in schools, so it is a pressured second job with a tight time schedule and limited training. This is not the best arrangement for success and yet it is planned to speed it up. Well, if nothing else changes, expect even more fiascoes.

I do not think these proposed changes will make life that much easier for the universities. Yes it will cut out the clearing system stress, but if they want to evaluate students properly and interview them, which ideally I think they should be doing for all prospective students, then they will still be pushed for time. This will also have an impact on holidays, as many university staff will not get one during the summer if they do the job properly after these changes.

So what are the alternatives? Sit A-levels after Christmas? That would make everything earlier in schools, which is not a good idea. Having a gap year and applying during the year, will give the universities a year without students. Neither of these will work.

However, the universities could give themselves more time by starting the academic year in November or later if need be. I do not see that this would be a problem because I do not see why the academic year needs to run from October to June, why not November to July? This would mean A-level results could be obtained in the same way as now, applications could then be made with no clearing system and the academic year for universities is shifted slightly. Problem solved.

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Andrew Bateson is 57 years old and initially trained as a Geologist. He has been a secondary school teacher for 22 years teaching Chemistry and Science to 11 to 18 year olds. Previously he worked in the Ceramic industry in research and development and then management. He has experience of both the independent and state sectors, teaching in single sex and mixed sex schools. As a Union Rep., he followed educational policy closely throughout his teaching career. He has retired from teaching to continue working with OOL and to retrain as a Psychotherapist.

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