OPINION: University is life-defining - so why aren't schools doing more to prepare us?

I ALWAYS have a wistful moment in the middle of August. I know from experience what a personal pivot A-level results day can be.


The day I collected my own defined my life.

I was leaving Barnsley for Oxford, no argument about that. I’d already passed the entrance exam and college interview and had been offered a place at Keble College so I was in, barring complete disaster.

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Still, I fretted that somehow my A-level grades would be taken into account. This was more than 30 years ago, when a prospective Oxbridge student could apply without waving a clutch of As in the face of the admissions tutor.

For the record, my grades in English, History, British Government and Politics and General Studies were nothing to be ashamed of. I floated home from the sixth form college feeling as if I could conquer the world.

I didn’t quite conquer the world. I did, however, study English Literature and Language at a university which gave me an education and opportunities I had never even imagined growing up in a very ordinary family in a very ordinary town.

I am acutely aware that I am very lucky. I am also aware of the fact my expectations are therefore exceedingly high. The Oxford tutorial system meant that my learning was pretty much tailored personally to my strengths.

All my tutors knew my name. I saw them for tutorials twice or three times a week, when they would focus on me and my tutorial partner exclusively for an hour or so. If I wanted to pursue a particular academic interest, all efforts were made to find me a learned expert who would guide me and listen to my feeble attempts at informed discourse.

If only every student tearing open that envelope today could be as lucky. What made my education special was the fact that I was treated like an individual, not a number on a grid.

A university which can still offer the personal touch in today’s marketplace economy is a good university. This, however, should be measured in quality not quantity. When I later taught journalism and media myself, I became concerned that there was a growing disconnection between what students expected and what universities are able to deliver.

In the mass numbers marketplace economy that is higher education today, it is simply not possible to deliver the hours of personal attention many students expect. The blame for this is always laid firmly at the feet of universities.

Staff are in a constant state of distress about the outcome of “student satisfaction surveys” which too often focus on failings rather than positive achievements. Managers are pressurised from all sides. Recruitment targets are not met – new figures from a Sutton Trust survey show that the proportion of schoolchildren aiming to go to university has fallen to its lowest level in eight years. And then to add to the clamour, parents ring up with a list of grievances.

Is it any wonder our universities are struggling to define what they should be about, and what they should do? This is a massive challenge, but I would like the whole system, from admissions to graduation, to be demystified.

For a start, schools should start preparing teenagers for the prospect from Year Seven, not when GCSEs are already chosen. Teachers – especially those in the state sector – should also encourage their pupils to aim high and wide, and acquaint themselves with the requirements for courses at the best Russell Group institutions and Oxbridge.

Recent research by University College London’s Institute of Education suggests that poor A-level choices are harming the chances of pupils from less-advantaged backgrounds. Rather than being encouraged to study vocational subjects such as “law” and “accountancy”, they should be steered towards “hard” choices such as history, geography, maths and chemistry to prove their ability to learn in greater depth.

In return, universities should be honest about their teaching methods. They should also be realistic about how much independent study a student is expected to undertake.

Too many presume that three years of higher education will be like an extension of school. It won’t be. Or at least it shouldn’t be. There are no homework diaries here.

I would also like to add that my three years at Oxford were not just about getting to grips with Middle English (which I’m not sure I ever did). They were also a tremendous life-learning curve. I was 18, living in a city miles from home, and I didn’t know a soul. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I came away with a degree, but I also graduated with self-confidence and the feeling that I was now equipped to find my way in life. A university which can do that, and do it over and over again a hundred thousand-fold, is a very, very good university indeed.

As academics and accountants and Cabinet ministers and political commentators continue to argue about the future of higher education, I hope this lesson is not cast aside.

Written by Jayne Dowle