A recent report from Ucas brought one of the classic episodes of the cult comedy series The Young Ones to mind. In it, the show’s four main characters – Vyvian, Neil, Rick and Mike – represent Scumbag College in University Challenge. Their opponents are four ludicrously posh kids representing Footlights College, Oxbridge. In no time at all, Footlights leap into the lead – not because they’re brighter, but because they cheat and bribe. The only way to get even, it seems, is for Scumbag to resort to slapstick violence and anarchy.
It’s a ridiculous sequence that plays on one of the UK university system’s dirtiest secrets: that when it comes to higher education in this country, the “haves” get an unfair advantage over the “have-nots”. This has always been largely anecdotal – one of those things a lot of people believe without necessarily having proof. But Ucas’s report has provided the smoking gun. It acknowledges that the university applications system unfairly advantages kids who go to private schools. Ucas also attempt to explain why, and even more importantly, suggest an alternative applications model that would be the biggest shake-up of the system in fifty years.
One of the big issues, Ucas says, is that private schools encourage their students to apply early to universities – and although it shouldn’t be the case, students who apply early do get a slight advantage. Ucas also found that the current system doesn’t give students enough time to research different universities and courses. As a result, kids with parents who went to university receive more advice about choosing a degree than kids whose parents didn’t. Many privately educated students also have tutors, who aren’t above ringing a university and putting in a good word for their prodigies.
Ucas is calling for a radical overhaul of the system. At its core, their idea is alarmingly simple: students shouldn’t apply until they actually get their A-Level results. This would get rid of the current system in which students apply with predicted grades. On paper, Ucas’s idea seems much fairer: it would create a process in which the best students – no matter what their backgrounds – compete for places on an even playing field. It would also be fairer on overseas students who have their local qualifications rather than A-Levels, or mature students looking to go back to university after years out of the education system.
But this oversimplifies the challenge. Changing the applications process wouldn’t just mean that universities wait a couple of weeks longer for results. It would transform the way A-Levels are taught. And that will have a direct impact on teachers, curriculum, term lengths, and a host of other issues. So even if it’s a fairer way forward for young people, there are other parties who’ll have plenty to say about it. But at least Ucas’s report has done one thing: the cat we all knew was there is finally out of the bag.
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