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UCAS CEO urges A level scholars to be ambitious

As students across the country await their A level results, UniBox has some encouraging words from the chief executive of UCAS about their prospects – and a call for applicants to be more ambitious and adventurous in their choices.

Mary Curnock Cook gave the keynote speech and presentation at the University of East Anglia’s 2016 Teachers’ and Advisers’ Conference in June, saying: “Students with reasonable A level grades are in huge, strong demand from the university sector. We can see that because universities are making tons of offers.”

She gave an overview of the state of applications and admissions in the UK, explaining how the number of 18-year-olds is falling as a proportion of the population, meaning universities are having to make ever-more offers to keep up their numbers. Projections show a growth of vocational courses and decline in the proportion of applicants having good A levels in coming years, too.

At the same time, schools are increasingly over-predicting A level grades for their students, to which universities are responding by accepting students who miss their predicted grades anyway.

“Universities understand that you’re doing this,” she said. “Over half were accepted who missed their predicted grades by two or more grades. Fifteen percent missed by three or more grades. Universities know you’re over-predicting… and so they are prepared to make your students an offer and they are prepared to discount.”

Students who are predicted Ds and Es are still overwhelmingly likely to get at least one offer, she said, and 39% who achieved BBB in 2015 were placed in higher-tariff universities compared with 17% in 2011.

Clearing, too, is a realistic route into higher-tariff unis, even if they are only recruiting through Clearing for 24 hours after results day.

“What this tells me is that your applicants can afford to be a bit bolder in their choices,” she concluded. “The market has gone over to the demand side rather than the supply side.”

Mary Curnock Cook made a guarded suggestion – one which, she stressed, was something to consider only on an individual basis and for strong students. She proposed that there might be a case for such students to make their first, safe choice of university their insurance choice instead. In other words, if they have found a course and uni they are happy with and feel it would be safe to accept, they might make that their insurance choice and then pick, as their first/firm choice, a stretching or ambitious offer from somewhere more selective or prestigious.

“There’s probably a reasonable chance you might then get into your stretch choice.”

Be more open-minded about course choices

Mary Curnock Cook referred, in her speech, to the presentation earlier in the day by Professor Colin Cooper, who pointed out that medical research depends upon other disciplines beyond medicine.

Traditional subjects still dominate the landscape, she said: 75% of pupils’ choices go to 25% of courses, and in the independent sector, 5% of UCAS courses get 50% of applications.

“I just think that’s terribly unimaginative,” she said. “Thinking about how you advise these rather unadventurous students who all want to do law, for example: well, you don’t need to do a law degree if you want to be lawyer. You can do some other degree and do law conversion.”

Applicants for medicine are some of the brightest students, but the acceptance rate for medicine is about 30%. “Think about what we heard [from Colin Cooper]. I think it’s really important that students realise there are different ways of being involved in the medical profession, and indeed there are also graduate routes [into medicine].”

She said that mathematics is now the most popular A level. “What are all those mathematicians doing? Don’t let them go off to Goldman Sachs. They might be rather rich but most of them will be utterly miserable,” she joked. These, she said, could be students who go into fields like Colin Cooper’s, and who make huge and rewarding contributions.

The same is true in business. She gave the example of accountancy giant PWC which, she said, recruits half of its graduate intake for accountancy from humanities subjects. So applicants wanting to go into business should look at university prospectuses and see what entrepreneurship programmes they have, beyond merely thinking about business courses.

“Ditto marketing. Ditto journalism. Ditto almost everything.”

The new economy

The world has changed, she said, in ways that parents don’t always realise. Graduates need to be prepared for a world of “gazelle companies”, the digital economy, social enterprise, and technologies that you can’t necessarily do a degree in.

The creative industries needn’t be seen as “hobbies” to be set aside while studying a degree that parents imagine has better prospects. If a student is interested in the UK’s gigantic fashion industry, for instance, they should go and see a graduate fashion fair and look at the very real careers opportunities available.

What if they don’t know what they want to do? Again, Mary Curnock Cook referred to Colin Cooper, who “didn’t either.”

She raised the concept of “brain workers”, using UCAS itself as an example. UCAS has 500 people: it has lawyers, accountants, project managers, software engineers, data scientists, marketers, writers, creative designers, policy wonks, and even two full-time film makers. “I’ve got no idea what degree backgrounds those people come from,” she said, insisting that it’s their hard work and dedication that matter.

“I’m going to suggest to you that this sharp divide between science and engineering on one side and arts and humanities on the other is not as sharp as it used to be. Somebody who does want to write screenplays or something… guess what? They need to be able to build web content and be part of social media and the online digital revolution. Equally, somebody who loves coding… they need storytelling skills as well. This is how these worlds are fusing together. Historians need big data techniques. Think about this merging.”

Her parting piece of advice was simply this: “Dream every day of a course that no-one else you know is applying for.”

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Tue, 14 Feb 2017



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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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