End the mass UCAS sign-up! It is no longer fit for purpose!

So why do I want to end the mass national, right-of-passage UCAS sign-up? So here’s the context, across the country thousands of sixth forms and colleges get all of their level 3 students to sign up for UCAS and apply for university. If anyone doesn’t want to do UCAS Apply then they have to let the school know that they want to opt-out and do other things. I am going to argue that this mass sign-up for UCAS is no longer fit for purpose and students should opt-in to UCAS Apply, not opt-out, and only after a programme of impartial careers education and guidance.

Too often we will fall back on the following narrative:

  1. As an Aimhigher sixth form, we want everyone to better themselves and achieve their dreams through going to university (the mission).
  2. We sign everyone up to UCAS Apply so that everyone applies to university (the process).
  3. With 100% (hopefully) of our sixth form applying for university we then have a clear marketing strategy to present to parents, governors etc. with good data from UCAS (the data).
  4. The vast majority of the sixth form goes to university, embarking on a bright shiny future of improved social mobility and a fantastic career waiting for them after they graduate (good news story).

Clearly what I have presented is simplistic in the extreme and is for many forward-thinking schools, a bit of a mildly offensive caricature. However, it does exist, and it carries on existing because it is the “default position that just keeps giving” and many sixth forms will just carry on doing the same old, same old, because it backs this simple narrative. But who does this mass sign-up work for? It may be a great system for schools, it’s clearly the best marketing universities have ever had. There’s just one little problem. I no longer think that it is in the student’s best interest.
So what is now different now;

Student finance – with the introduction of the higher fees, £9,000pa and rising, this has been a game changer. So on the one hand we have students being subjected to a full-blown university marketing campaign, who sign up through UCAS Apply, sometimes press-ganged by schools, and on the other we have a group of 17/18 year olds still in adolescence who cannot really relate to the financial decisions that they are having to make at this age. They are not getting independent financial advice on this crucial commitment to a massive amount of debt.

The Graduate dividend – depends doesn’t it! I went against the grain in the 00’s saying that I thought the DFES research talking about graduates earning £400,000 in their lifetime over non-graduates was rubbish and I still believe this. Some graduates will earn lots more than non-graduates and many will earn no more or less than non-graduates. It’s the “graduate dependedend!”  There are many good reasons why students may want to go to university (love of a subject, learning to think and study independently, developing as a person etc), however the blanket use of the graduate dividend theory to justify ever increasing student fees is now an obvious falsehood.

Increased range of choice – there are now a wider range of options – some which may still involve debt, such as university courses abroad and some which will involve no debt at all such as Apprenticeships (where you get a wage) or the often forgotten about options in Further Education which may involve much smaller costs.

The current use of UCAS Apply games the system to one particular way forward which may not be to the benefit of many of our sixth form leavers.

Careers education and guidance in sixth forms is far more important than UCAS Apply. The priority must be on a careers education programme which is led by human beings – not a website – which take the students through all their options and the pros and cons of each option including the financial ones. Then there must be access to a trained careers professional who can talk through impartially, the issues that relate to that student on that student’s terms.

UCAS Apply has an importance that it simply doesn’t deserve, and it needs to be put in its place. Sure, other universities around the world look enviously at the UKs UCAS system because they wish they had such an effective marketing strategy.

This article is not an attack on our fantastic higher-education institutions, though I do think many need to adapt. There needs to be more Degree Apprenticeships, more work placement years and much better investment in careers and employability for the hard to reach students at university who don’t take advice and are in danger of becoming graduate unemployed and graduate underemployed.

Now before you have a go at me for being utilitarian, I fanatically believe that if a student loves a subject which they want to study in higher education e.g. Drama, then you only get one life, do it, who cares what other people think. All I’m asking for is that students are really aware of what their financial commitments are, they have an idea of what might happen to them after they graduate and what other ways might exist to achieve their goal. Surely I’m not asking for too much before they get sucked into the UCAS whirlpool.

We need this period of reflection for student’s, whether they apply for a degree, higher apprenticeship, degree apprenticeship, FE course or HE course abroad. Let’s make it harder for them to apply for things, not easier, then they will have to think more about what they are doing and why they are doing it. UCAS Apply is just too damn easy! A few clicks, bang, committed to £50,000 of debt for a course they may not like, which might have dubious graduate prospects.

So let’s opt-in and not opt-out. Once we take this prop away, the excuses for a lack of careers education and guidance will be stark and all too painfully obvious.

And I haven’t mentioned Post Qualifications Application, that’s because it’s years down the line. On the ground we can change behaviour now!

Opinion from Andy Gardner

Comments 4

  1. Absolutely agree Andy. The university agenda is relentlessly pushed at the expense of other options. HE is not one size fits all.

    1. Post
  2. Andy – I agree. The ‘default’ application can make students a bit lazy and I see far too many who are putting very little thought and research into their choice of university course. As I say to them ‘if you were going out to buy a car worth £50K you’d put a bit of effort in to making sure its what you REALLY want….The analogy works quite well.

    One of the big stumbling blocks for those ‘brave enough’ to make other choices is that we are still see employers recruiting with outmoded requirements. ‘A good degree from a top university’ .What the heck does that mean? By whose judgement? The recruiters isn’t sitting on a debt of ££££££.
    SO- one of the biggest roles the Careers and Enterprise Company could fulfill is to educate recruiters about what applicants could be offering them if they opened their eyes a little more.

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