Some advice on universities

The High School’s Year 13 students are in the midst of animated discussions about their plans for life after school. Personal statements are being edited and re-edited, the relative benefits of city vs. campus university are being weighed and everyone agrees that there is actually a lot to be said for having access to one’s own washing machine at home. In the course of these conversations, I have been struck by the degree to which the university landscape is in flux. Changes in Higher Education are nothing new, of course. Northampton can lay claim to the UK’s third most venerable university, a foundation that was established in 1261 and dissolved by Henry III in 1265 – apparently on account of the threat it posed to some rather insecure scholars in Oxford. But the changes of the last few years have been notably rapid and represent an acceleration of a trend that has been apparent since the introduction of university tuition fees by Tony Blair’s Labour government.

Since 1998, just under 20 new institutions have been founded, existing ones expanded, new courses introduced and others retired. University funding per student has increased significantly, as has the degree to which universities are scrutinised, held accountable and managed. There are now more different types of higher education provider and different methods of assessment and learning, with a greater focus on employability and on traditionally vocational courses. The UK’s higher education participation rate has grown to over 50 per cent, while the proportion of students who are female has risen to 57 per cent. The UK’s university system continues to gain in popularity worldwide, as more international students are choosing to study here than ever before, with particularly strong growth coming from China, India and Nigeria over the last five years. Such changes are not confined to the UK, as countries seek to attract talented young people from across the globe. Many universities in non-English-speaking countries now deliver some undergraduate courses in English, whether in Egypt, the Netherlands, Singapore or Sweden.

What does all this mean for our High School students? Cutting through the complexity, there are two sets of seemingly contradictory advice that I think matter most.

First, the most competitive courses are becoming more competitive – but don’t underestimate your potential. There is no escaping the fact that competition for “high-tariff” courses has increased hugely. To maximise their chances of success, students must be engaging in their subjects widely outside class, as well as developing a solid base of general knowledge (they could be reading the Financial Times online through our school subscription and listening to Radio 4, say). They must begin to do so early and during the first half of Year 12 at the latest. That said, our students are excellent and should feel confident that, with the right attitude to their learning and supercurricular studies, they have every reason to aspire to the most competitive courses.

Second, your choice of course matters and it must be one that suits your strengths and interests – but you are also quite likely to study another course at master’s level. Applying successfully to a university isn’t an end in itself. What matters are the subsequent three or four years. This is why the choice of course is so important: will you enjoy your studies, flourish and be successful; does the format of assessment suit you; does the location fill you with joy (rolling countryside or urban buzz); will your extracurricular skills and talents find an outlet to enrich your life? It is more than likely that there is a course that suits you. That said, increasing numbers of undergraduates are staying at or returning to university to complete postgraduate courses. If you can’t decide between two courses now, make a decision in the knowledge that you may be able to study at the other university at a later date.

I am proud of the support we offer our students when preparing for university. Throughout the year, we run sessions and hold events that help develop students’ understanding of life after school. The Sixth Form Information Evening on Wednesday 19 October will give Year 11 students a flavour of Sixth Form and I would encourage them to start having conversations about university options with the subject teachers who already know them so well. On Friday 27 January 2023 the University of Leicester will be giving a talk on universities and careers at the High School, while on Tuesday 21 February the University of Birmingham will be joining us for our Higher Education Evening, with a further two talks from other providers later in the year. Our tutors and subject teachers have a huge amount of experience; Mrs Carr offers bespoke support for medics, Miss Kilby for Oxbridge applicants and Miss Robinson for personal statements across all courses. They all know the higher education landscape well, but, more importantly, they know their students.

Mr Viesel
Director of Sixth Form