I’ve been gobbing off about this for a while now but new figures show even more clearly that the schools’ push to get all students, regardless of their aptitude or suitability, into university is demonstrably failing. Not in the goal, they are indeed packing them in there, but keeping them there is something quite, quite different. I’ve seen it myself with students I’ve worked with – press-ganged into accepting any old place without a clear view of where it may take them longer term. That initial relief of being ‘sorted’ very quickly gives way to dawning horror as they come to understand that for the first year alone they are on the hook for up to £9,250 in tuition fees, plus whatever they’ve shelled out for books, rent, board, loans and so on. All of which would be fine if they were happy with their choices but the evidence suggests otherwise.
There is one very specific cohort, whom schools, with their enthusiasm to buck the trend and show how socially mobile aware they are, have been railroaded into degrees they don’t hanker after. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are leaving after the first year, not quite in droves but certainly more than a statistical anomaly, 8.8% of students dropped out after their first year in the 2014-2015 figures. Although drop out is probably too loaded a term, I prefer to think of it as coming to their senses. Now, 8.8% doesn’t seem a lot in percentage terms but that’s around about 20,000 students accruing about £160,000 (adjusted for the lower fees) worth of unnecessary debt that is going straight into greedy unis’ pockets plus whatever student loans they’ve taken out.
As I wrote about the other day, social mobility is of course to be encouraged and employers should certainly do whatever they can to develop a robust ‘background blind’ recruitment policy but as a country we should be fostering our students and taking much greater care with the advice we give them. This panacea approach of ‘get them into uni, that’ll solve everything’ is completely reckless. Many of them may well find their way into universities further down the line anyway but saddling uncertain students with what may as well be an insurmountable level of debt at the beginning of their lives is irresponsible at best and borderline criminally negligent.
If you’re going to corral these kids and shepherd them towards uni, make sure it’s what they want, what will help them, what will give them the advantage they need to access the career they are looking for. Don’t do it out of a misguided sense of it being ‘improving’. It’s beyond patronising. The whole undertaking is wrong headed and is being approached in entirely the wrong way – by having better universities and career advice in schools, students will be better equipped to assess whether university is the right choice for them. Let everyone know the options, the expectations, the risks, the rewards and the attainability and it will encourage social mobility in a much more organic way than ‘schemes’ and box checking exercises by government departments and universities’ condescension.