Why Not Me?20 February 2012
Graham, Amina and Rosemary go to a good sixth form college in a nice town in the middle of Britain. They’ve all worked hard, encouraged and supported by their parents, who know how important their own time at university was to them. Amina and Graham both expect to do well in their A-levels this year, and both get two A grades and a B in their mock examinations. Rosemary has more vocational instincts, and expects three Bs. Guided by their teachers, they complete their UCAS applications and, as required, accept two offers apiece. Graham and Amina want to go to well-rated universities, that have lots of applicants who expect to get at least two As and a B in their final exams. Rosemary chooses two universities that specialise in her chosen vocational subject.
Thursday, 16 August: A-level results day. Rosemary and Amina get the results they hoped for. But Graham has dropped a grade. He’s done very well, but it’s one A and two Bs. Both his chosen universities turn him away, regretfully. They explain that they would have liked to take him but, with his one A and two B grades, he now falls inside their restricted allocation of places. If they were to accept him, they will be fined heavily.
Increasingly anxious, Graham and his parents spend the next week trawling the websites of universities that still have places available. Many of these places are for academic programmes that Graham does not want to study, in places where he does not want to live. He and his family are pragmatic, and they make the calls. But there’s nothing for him. Tired voices on the end of the line say that, with his grades, they would have loved to have had him if he’d applied to them first time around. But they are now full and, if they were to take him, they would be heavily fined by HEFCE, their regulator.
September: Rosemary and Amina set off for university. But Graham has no place. Along with many others with high A-level results that are not quite high enough, he has been caught between the unrestricted places available for everyone who gets at least two As and a B, and the strictly limited number of places available for everyone else. He will join perhaps 100,000 other school leavers who would like to get into university this year, but who will be disappointed.
Graham and his parents are bewildered. They read The Guardian every day, and had noted the predictions that high fees would put thousands off the idea of university. They had also read that, when applications had closed in February, they had been almost 9 per cent down on the previous year. Surely, then, here should have been a place for someone like Graham, with one A grade and two very respectable Bs?
But now it seems that lots of people had realised that the much higher fees will not affect take home pay. Amina and Rosemary will only start repaying after they graduate, and after they earn more than £21,000 a year; even then, the amount they repay will be determined by their salary, not by the size of their debt. And those lower levels of applications back in February? It now turns out that the decline was a bit of a mirage. Applications by Graham, Amina and Rosemary’s contemporaries were actually only down by 1 per cent in comparison to 2011, and not really down at all in comparison with previous years. So competition for university places was just as fierce this year as ever before. It seems that even The Guardian got it wrong.
Graham is resourceful. He decides to apply again for next year, when he can expect to get a confirmed place early on, given his good grades. He’ll spend the year trying to get what work he can, building up his experience.
Graham is also inquisitive, and wants to find out how it can be that his contemporaries, often with far more modest A-levels than his, are now in their first year at university while he has been denied a place. He reads the Browne Review (“Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education”) and the White Paper (“Students at the Heart of the System”), and wonders at their titles. He learns that many universities want to admit more students, and students like him, and would willingly do so if allowed. He discovers that the government wants to re-balance the economy and will depend on more and more highly qualified people to do so. Many other governments – in fact, almost all other governments – believe that investing in more university students is vital if their countries are to grow in future years.
Graham is still bewildered. How come none of this applies to him? Amina and Rosemary come back home for Christmas excited by student life. Graham keeps wondering, why not me?