Go Higher: We advise, but don't preach

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The Independent Online
Each term UCAS publishes a magazine for potential students called You Can!

Its purpose is to help potential students with the process of access to higher education. This includes advice on how to research potential courses and institutions, how to fill in the form and prepare for interviews, and what to expect when you finally get to university or college.

The magazine is written in, what I call, "18-year-old's speak" and I think that sometimes it is read by parents and teachers at their peril!

Certainly, the focus groups whom we consult regularly about You Can! are enthusiastic about it. They say it strikes the right tone.

Teachers and careers advisors are very complimentary because they know how to switch on young people, and You Can! clearly does that.

The most recent edition carried an article on "Sex and the single student". This was written by a student who described some of the difficulties that might be encountered by students who were having their first sexual experience at university or college.

I received a number of letters of complaint from teachers and others who objected to the article on religious grounds. They claimed that UCAS was promoting immorality. They claimed that we were giving a platform for the expression of views which were wholly unsuitable.

I have written to all those who took offence to apologise. It is certainly not UCAS's task to give people a platform either to promote immorality or to preach religion. It is, however, UCAS's task to explain to students and their parents what they are letting themselves in for when they go university or college, not only in academic terms but also in relation to the social scene in which they will find themselves and which eventually relates to job and career prospects.

As long as it is customary for school and college leavers to go away from home for their higher education experience (and this might well change over the years as the introduction of tuition fees and student loans bites in) students will find themselves in a completely new environment.

Up until then it has always been their parents who have made the basic life-decisions on their behalf, eg where they live (perhaps by virtue of the job which they take) or where they go to school (perhaps by virtue of where they live or if they decide to send them away to an independent school). Now, suddenly, it is the students' lives which are paramount and it is their responsibility to look after themselves.

For the first time they will have to manage their own finances and in particular their own budgeting. Perhaps for the first time they will be cooking for themselves and learning how to shop to ensure that they get the best from their limited budget. They may well come under pressure for the first time in relation to alcohol and drugs although, while it seems that alcohol remains part of the student culture, the drug scene seems much less threatening than in previous years. Nevertheless, the dangers are still there and, as for sex, you cannot deny that young people who are developing into adults are likely to be tempted into sexual experiences.

However much we as parents or those whose moral standards are rooted in their religious beliefs, would wish to see our views replicated in our children, they are developing their own lives and will live them to their own standards. What is incumbent on us is to warn them of the dangers that they face (in the case of sexual relations the dangers inherent in unprotected intercourse or of pregnancy - and there are those who would have us believe that pregnancy is not a "danger").

From my experience of working with generations of potential students I have concluded that we are privileged to have such a talented, thoughtful and hard-working younger generation. We should give them as much advice as we feel able, but should not expect to control how they build their adult lives.

UCAS will continue to give potential students as much advice as is practicable for the transition from school or college to higher education, so that students can get the best out of their studies. We will leave preaching to others and content ourselves with the fact that the advice given in publications such as Go Higher and You Can! will be acknowledged, sifted through and accepted (or perhaps not) by the wisdom of the student population.

'You Can!' is available from WH Smith (pounds 1.95) and is distributed free to all schools and colleges throughout the UK.