Over 300,000 students are concluding further education today as they receive their A-level results. The options for them are many: they might be going to university, entering into an apprenticeship or going directly into work. For some whose results were not what they were hoping for, choices will be harder to make.
But for any student, the political climate and its impact on education both at further and higher education level is one of volatility.
The government has plans to linearise the A-level programme, ‘toughening up’ the qualification and moving away from coursework in favour of end of year examinations. This follows the announcement in 2013 that students would no longer sit January exams.
At university level, the rise in tuition fees has been coupled with the ongoing debate surrounding the sale of the student loan book. Uncertainty remains over whether fees will rise again, as the Cabinet is currently divided over the sale and how the lifted cap will be funded. Meanwhile, former Minister of State David Willetts suggested that Cambridge and Oxford universities consider purchasing their students’ debts and raise fees beyond the cap, which they project could reach £16,000.
The potential impact of these developments on students is enormous. The ‘Gove effect’ has prompted educators to criticise the narrowing of opportunities for students, particularly disadvantaging students from backgrounds of low participation in higher education. For the first time in thirty years, the pass rate for A-levels has fallen, with the proportion of students achieving A*-E dropping from 98.1% to 98%.
Students’ perceptions of education are changing too, as they respond to the marketisation of schools and universities. It’s not uncommon for students to break down their tuition fees into the number of the lectures offered to them.
The turbulence in the sector is undeniable, and while students receiving their results today can rightly celebrate the achievements they have made so far, they must recognise the enormity of the decisions they are making now.
The question that parents, educators, politicians, employers and most importantly, the students should be asking is: what is the endpoint?
While many students are going on from A-levels directly into employment or onto apprenticeship schemes, 500,000 will enrol at a university, more than ever before. Whilst the population of 16-18 year olds is decreasing, the demand for university places indicates that the sector remains healthy.
Mary Curnock Cook, Chief Executive of Ucas, said that people still saw going to university as an excellent choice, and that, despite a dip in demand following the 2012 rise in fees, more and more students are opting to study for higher qualifications, especially in core subjects such as science and maths.
Universities and student feedback highlight the focus on employability as a motivator for students to continue their studies, and students are becoming more wary of the transition, primarily concerned with the security of landing a job when they leave.
The decision to commit between three and four years and tens of thousands of pounds to working towards a degree is a large one. It should be balanced with excitement for the cultural and personal value and the independence that university brings, and a clear investment in professional development and opportunities.
Students have more to consider now than ever before. It is good news that university places are increasing, but there are still questions around the funding, assessment and structure of the education system.
In order to allay the anxieties of the students receiving results today and those in future years, many believe that we must address these issues in the system so that we can help students make the decisions that lead them to their endpoint: employability.
John Gusman is a Public Affairs and Media Relations Intern at PLMR. He was previously Vice President for Education at Bournemouth University’s Students’ Union.