University is about much more than a degree certificate and a job

It’s that time of year: A-level results day has become as fixed a part of the summer calendar as Wimbledon, Test cricket and news about the weather.

By Professor Sir Chris Husbands
Tuesday, 13 August, 2019, 09:00
Sheffield Hallam University.

This week, newspapers and websites will be full of photographs of 18-year-olds jumping for joy as they get their A-level grades. University phone lines will be open for clearing — a vast operation across all universities matching students and courses.

But university admissions are changing. What used to be a scramble for places amongst those who had not secured offer grades for the university or course of their choice has been transformed.

A significant number of students now come into admissions for the first time at what is now called ‘clearing and adjustment’.

There are some good reasons for this. The most important reason is numbers.

There are fewer 18-year-olds than there were last year, and there will be fewer again next year. The number of 18-year-olds in the UK will continue to fall through to 2022 – after which it rises sharply, and things will change again.

The second reason is a significant policy change. Until 2014, the number of university places was capped by the Government — once all the places were filled, there were no more. In 2014, David Cameron’s government lifted the cap. Universities can grow. That has produced more competition between universities, with both winners and losers, but combined with the demographic dip, it has transformed university entrance.

An increasing number of students are bypassing the main application window, which runs from October to January, and waiting for clearing and adjustment. A decade ago, government and universities considered how to move to a post-qualification admissions system. That turns out to be far more complicated than anyone quite expected, but something like it is now emerging by default.

If university entrance has become something of a buyers’ market, there are more sources of information to guide students than ever before. The Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework – which I have chaired for three years - means that students can make more informed choices about choosing a university and a course: the TEF website draws together all the data.

Just as admissions are changing, so are university courses. At my own university, Sheffield Hallam — one of the biggest in the country with 32,000 students and an extraordinary range of courses — we are trying to make sure that students are positioned to succeed after university in an increasingly complex economy and competitive job market. Almost two-thirds of our courses are accredited by professional bodies which test our programmes for their relevance to the demands of employment.

From 2019, we are embedding work experience into all our degree programmes at every level, and we are reshaping our curriculum around a unique ‘Hallam Model’ which gives every student the best possible chance of success.

I expect students to ask us hard questions: about what skills they will develop, about how the university ensures a blend of theory and practice. I will expect them to ask about employment rates after graduation. Sheffield Hallam University is one of the UK’s leading applied universities, with an exceptional track record connecting research to real-world challenges, so I will expect students to ask how we use our research to drive our teaching.

Of course, university is not just about a degree certificate and a job. We shouldn’t forget that for many, university experience is defined by other valuable opportunities including access to sports facilities, friendship groups that may last a lifetime, volunteering and cultural enrichment.

There’s never been a time in history when universities have meant so much to so many people. The rate of increase in university attendance around the world is staggering — the world is going to university. The pace of clearing is frantic, but if you are looking to secure a place this year that doesn’t mean you’re on the back foot. It means you have a chance to scrutinise the best place for you to go, where you can enjoy your experience and ensure that your educational investment pays off in the longer term.

There is more choice than ever, more opportunities than ever, more information than ever. Smart, prospective students — and their families — will use clearing as an opportunity to help them make the right choice for their future.