Forget Paxman – The Real University Challenge

Education, Exams, Learning, Motivation, Politics

More young people than ever are applying to university, with 495,600 getting a place in higher education in 2013.  That’s a lot of teenagers applying for the same courses.  I found out recently that the most popular of these can have up to 18 applicants per available place – what?!

I know what you’re thinking.  Not another student complaining how hard their life is, how difficult applying to university is, bla bla bla.  But give me a chance – I promise I won’t moan too much…actually don’t hold me to that one!

A lot of changes concerning higher education have happened during my time at secondary school, notably the rise in tuition fees.  The pantomime villain responsible for this, according to most students, is Nick Clegg.  After Clegg (boo hiss) promised the National Union of Students that he would oppose any rise in fees, the coalition government proceeded to increase the cap on the amount to be charged to £9000 a year.  Hmmm.

My main memories from this time are of the student marches in London and the auto-tuned YouTube parody of Nick Clegg’s apology (if you haven’t already seen it you’re missing out).  However, now that it’s time for me to start the university application process myself, I’m realising how much of an impact changes such as this are going to have on the choices I make.

It could be argued that the rise in tuition fees has had some positive effects.   After a dip in applications in 2012, numbers have continued to rise.  The difference is that teenagers have to think much more carefully about university – it’s no longer an option if you aren’t sure about any aspect of university life, or your course.  Interestingly, despite the increasing price of attending university, the numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education have never been larger – the reasons for this welcomed change are not yet clear.

Since higher fees have encouraged teenagers to look into other ways of gaining further education, it could be argued that this has prevented many young people from making the wrong decision.  Unfortunately, I know of a few students who have taken up a course and realised that it wasn’t what they wanted a few years in.  Now that tuition is so high, dropping out or switching courses is a huge decision to make; £9000 is a lot of money to ‘waste’.  As a result, it seems to some students that once you begin at university, there really is no going back.

The main thing that I have noticed since starting to consider higher education is the increased pressure to guarantee employment after your course ends.  Again, this is largely down to the amount of money you are investing – it makes sense to want to get something back!  The continued popularity of medicine, education and law courses support this idea, but what about those of us who don’t want this sort of job?

It seems to me that more and more people are choosing a subject because of its employability levels rather than how passionate they are about it.  Three years is a long time to study something you hate, even if you do get a ridiculously well paid job out of it.  This is one of the main issues with increasing the price of going to university; I’d like to think we should at least partly be motivated by doing something that we love.  Maybe that’s a little naïve.  Perhaps the opportunity to study for pleasure is one only available to a privileged few, with everyone else having to think in more practical terms.

I’ve faced issues frequently since deciding that I want to study English at undergraduate level.  Even though I love the subject, many people seem to see it as a waste of time.  When I tell people about my plans, a common reaction is a kind of strained smile followed by: “So do you want to be a teacher then?”  As well intentioned as this comment is, I often feel like screaming: ‘NO.  NO I DO NOT WANT TO BE A TEACHER’ (don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate teachers – I just don’t fancy it as a career).  The other frequent reaction is a look of surprise and a comment about me being ‘a clever girl’ – why don’t I want to study law or ‘something sciencey’ instead?

The answer?  I love literature and I always have done.  I’m not put off by the very small amount of contact hours for arts degrees and I want to do something that I’m good at.  I’ll confess:  I don’t yet know exactly what career path I want to take upon the completion of my degree (shock horror).  I’m sorry if at the age of 17 I don’t know how I want to spend my entire future – I’m certainly not the only one.

My last year of A-levels is going to be packed with decisions and applications.  The most pressing concern upon my return to college is writing my personal statement, something which seems to involve a whole military style procession of checks, redrafts, more checks and rewording.  Who would have thought that 4000 characters could be so intimidating!  The fact is that competition for courses at some universities is so fierce that a good personal statement is more valuable to a student than an iPhone.  Well, I say that…

But what about those who might not have had as much help with their personal statement?  There is still a heated debate over whether success depends primarily on preparation or natural talent.  Many people are complaining that a system which favours pupils who have been ‘trained’ during their A- levels reflects unfairly on those who attend less affluent schools or colleges.  Are university applications still affected by issues of class?

Essentially the UCAS application process seems to me like one big competition (I’m thinking a Crufts style arena and everything) where only the students with the best grades, the best work experience and the best interview technique  get to go where they really want.  No pressure then.

I know that there are options other than university, some of which are absolutely brilliant.  But for me personally, I feel this is the right choice – unfortunately this means A LOT of work for me over the next twelve months, as well as for the other estimated 500,000 – 600,000 people applying through UCAS this year.  Despite this I’m still excited about (hopefully) starting university in 2015.   I’m telling you, it had better be worth it!

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