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University admissions 2016: five myths debunked

Nicola Dandridge

Nicola Dandridge

Former Chief Executive
Universities UK

It is that time of year when the media gaze turns to exam results and university admissions.

Before the customary photos of A-level students jumping for joy after getting their results, we can expect more discussion and debate about the number of university places available and whether getting a degree still represents good value for money.

With this in mind, here are five of the most common university admissions myths debunked:

1.    This will be the biggest ever scramble for university places:

Despite the annual forecasts of scrambles and chaos, applications for university entry this year have again been remarkably steady and at near-record levels. This year, nearly 675,000 people had applied through UCAS by its 30 June deadline (more will have applied since), an increase of 1,850 applicants compared to this point last year.

For most of them (more than 360,000 applicants), Thursday morning will bring the news that they've got into their first choice university. Thousands more will make decisions based on offers they have received.

For those students who did not get the grades they hoped for or did not get any offers, they have the option of using the Clearing system. Last year, a record 64,300 students used Clearing to find the right course for them. This year, we expect there will be even more courses on offer and similar numbers finding places by the end of the Clearing period. According to UCAS figures, a final total of 532,300 people entered UK higher education in last year's cycle, the highest number recorded.

The lifting of the cap (in 2015) on the numbers of students England's universities can admit has meant that some universities that wanted to expand numbers have been able to do so. It is important to remember that not all universities want, or are able to, expand, and that in any given year, there are only a finite number of qualified applicants they can admit.

2. Tuition fees are about to be 'hiked up' considerably again:

It has been reported that tuition fees in England are about to rise considerably once more. The only change – announced back in July 2015 in the summer budget – is that the £9,000 fee cap, introduced in 2012, will be adjusted in line with inflation (a rise of 2.8% for the current cap) from 2017-18.

3.    Getting a degree isn't worth it any more:

Despite the usual predictions of gloom, applicants, it seems, are recognising the range of benefits that come with getting a degree.

Official data shows that graduates are more likely to be in employment and earn considerably more than non-graduates over a working lifetime. Graduates on average earn almost £10,000 a year more than people without degrees.

They are also in demand from employers. Recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) showed that 91% of graduates who left university in 2015 were either in employment or undertaking further study, while only 5% were unemployed and 4% were taking time out for other activities, such as travelling.

The 2016 CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey, highlighted also that major employers are satisfied overall with the skill levels of graduates and that skilled graduates are going to be in increasing demand in the years ahead.

Although salaries are a very important factor, we must get away from the idea that a degree's only value lies in how much graduates go on to earn.

Some universities specialise in fields such as the arts, nursing, the charity sector and public sector professions that make a hugely important contribution to society and the economy, but pay less on average.

The benefits of a degree certainly go beyond the financial return. A degree helps students develop a range of other life skills, from the ability to think critically, to analysing and presenting evidence. Higher education is also about making life-long friendships with people from all parts of the world, developing cultural understanding and developing as an individual.

4.    Students are dissatisfied and are not getting value for money:

While demand for university places remains strong – and competition for students is as fierce as ever – universities are not complacent. The results of this year's National Student Survey, published last week, showed levels of satisfaction among students across the UK remains high, indeed at record levels. 86 per cent said they were satisfied overall with their course.

In recent years, universities have increased investment in teaching and learning and are continuing to respond to feedback to further improve what they offer students.

5.    People from disadvantaged backgrounds are being deterred from university

While universities have made great strides in recent years to increase the number of students from under-represented groups (there are now 40% more students from disadvantaged backgrounds at university compared to 10 years ago), there is still more to be done in this area.

This is why Universities UK launched a Social Mobility Advisory Group earlier this year. The group is aiming to provide advice and support to English universities on improving under-represented groups' access to higher education and longer-term success. It will make recommendations this autumn.​

While a degree clearly remains a worthwhile investment in terms of earnings and life-long skills, more work needs to be done to look at some of the wider issues around social mobility and how we measure success in terms of a university degree.

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Michael Otsuka
Michael Otsuka says:
31 October 2016 at 10:49

If Universities UK is a principled organisation, it will now also endorse an RPI-based increase in the pay of academics. For more details, see the following two blog posts:



Michael Otsuka
Michael Otsuka says:
3 November 2016 at 10:57

The earlier comment I submitted in response to this blog post in defence of a hike in tuition fees by RPI has been stuck in your moderation queue for days. So I gave up and submitted it as a letter to the THES instead, which they published today. Here's the link:  https://www.timeshighereducation.com/letters/is-that-rpi-or-cpi

Gordon Squires
Gordon Squires says:
4 November 2016 at 10:11

Thanks for this post. It's important that school leavers have accurate information regarding the benefits of going to university. Regarding the £10,000 difference in annual earnings that separates those with and without a university degree, it think it would also be useful to compare the earnings of those with a university degree with those without a university degree who achieved the qualifications to go to university.

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