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Thursday 10 February 2011

It is interesting how university admissions have suddenly become a really big topic over the past year.  First of all we have the issue of fees, about which there is genuine concern, but also a large dose of misinformation flying around.  As I have said before in this blog, it has been necessary to do some quite serious corrective work with students in years 10-12 on going to university, as many of them gained the impression during the students protests that the proposal was to make it impossible for anyone but the super-rich to have that opportunity. Whatever you think of the proposals, that is not the case: the ‘loan’ is not a loan in the normal sense of the word, because it does not affect credit rating, only has to be paid when income reaches a certain level, and is written off after 30 years anyway.

This week we have the most prestigious universities in the country, Oxford and Cambridge, deciding, unsurprisingly, that they will be charging the maximum fee of £9,000 per person per year.  And we have the government reminding these and other universities thinking of charging the maximum that over £6,000 carries obligations to facilitate and widen access to less well off students.

Oxford and Cambridge could certainly do with looking at that seriously.  At Bennett we have a good record of getting students to Oxbridge, and have had steady numbers over the past five years.  However it should be a great concern nationally that while 7% of young people are educated privately, nearly half of Oxbridge places are still taken by those from the private sector.  The comments we hear in the media from the top universities are frequently disingenuous.  I went to Cambridge myself, having attended a London-fringe comprehensive in the 1970s, and taken the entrance exam, as it then was, in the sixth form.  I know that when I was there less than half of my fellow students had been educated in state schools, but they were by far the best achieving.  There were plenty of my contemporaries from very expensive independent schools who had been intensively coached and prepared, and were certainly able to hold their own socially, but often struggled with more difficult aspects of the work when required to do it independently.  It is something of a shame that thirty years later they haven’t found a better way to identify exceptional potential than the old fashioned Oxbridge interview.

And then last week the Russell Group, which, along with the ‘1994 Group’, represents the top universities in the UK, published its guide for preparing for university study, Informed Choices, which, along with a lot of really useful information for parents, students and schools on how to make good choices in the lead up to going to university finally confirmed what has been obvious for a long time, namely that some A Levels are more highly regarded or useful for getting in to university than others.  What is even more interesting is that the list of so-called ‘facilitating A Levels’ is exactly the same list of subjects as are needed at GCSE for the English Baccalaureate, which I wrote about some time ago, namely English, mathematics, the sciences, history, geography and languages.  I wonder how long it will be before these top universities, heavily oversubscribed as most of their courses are, start asking for the English Bacc at GCSE level as a precondition for being considered?


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