Higher Education: A good time to explore

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I went up to university in Newcastle in 1963, full of hope and anticipation.I played in the Freshers' rugby trial, scored a couple of tries and was picked to play for the university's First Fifteen on the first full Saturday of the season. On the following Monday I collected my grant cheque and then went to meet my fellow students.

This year, 35 years later, the first thing that the majority of new students will be faced with is a bill for tuition fees. Perhaps anticipation will turn into frustration. At no stage in my student life was I in debt. These days the majority of students will be in debt almost before they start.

Ever since David Blunkett, the Secretary for State and Employment, announced that students entering Higher Education in 1998 would have to pay tuition fees, there have been forecasts that this would deter prospective students from applying. There were fears particularly that those students who come from the lower socio-economic groups would have a reduced opportunity of the benefit of a university or college education.

At every turn, over the last year, those forecasts have proved to be groundless. Applications for entry to higher education in 1998 are slightly down but applications from school and college leavers are up against last year. The whole hit this year has been taken by prospective mature applicants and this has been a continuing trend over recent years.

There was a dearth of places in higher education some 20 years ago when there was a bulge in the 18-year-old cohort so that opportunities to go to university were limited. Since then, with the expansion of higher education, those who missed out years ago have been able to get into university and college including, of course, the Open University.

Every forecast of a fall in demand has been wrong: overall applicant numbers are holding up; there is no variation in the pattern of applicants in the various socio-economic groups; numbers accepted by universities and colleges in Scotland are greater than last year's, even with the suggested deterrent of four years' worth of fees.

There are more students applying after the publication of A-level results this year than last; there are now fewer students dropping out than might have been expected.

Did the pundits get it wrong? Did the Government get it right? We are still waiting to see whether students actually turn up at the beginning of term and if they do whether they later drop out because of financial difficulties.

I suggest that students recognise the benefits of a university or college education: meeting new people; exploring new ideas and widening horizons, they will move in to rewarding and well-paid jobs when they graduate with guarantees of employment and financial rewards.

There is no doubt that going on to higher education is a good bet. We are not here talking only of degree courses. There is plenty of experience of those who cannot get on to a degree course, perhaps because they only have one A- level who, however, are enrolled onto a Higher National Diploma course and then get a good job at the conclusion of their studies. There is also good evidence of those who with only one A-level enrol on an HND course, transfer in mid-course to a degree course and then graduate well. Who will then say that you cannot get a good degree with only one A-level? Young people should not be consigned to some second- or third-rate track simply because they did not quite peak at A-level or GNVQ time. I get frustrated by accusations of a diminution of standards, simply because a few students at the margins, who have clear potential, are being admitted with grades below the conventional cut-off point.

So if you think that going to university or college is for you, go for it! Excitement, enjoyment, challenge and stimulus await you.

UCAS has prepared a series of three programmes on higher education, "Go Higher", which are being broadcast by the BBC in their Learning Zone series. "Why Go to University or College?" is being shown on October 16, repeated November 6, "Choosing the Right Course and College" on October 23, repeated November 13 and "What's it like at University and College?" on October 9, repeated on October 30 and November 20. All the programmes will be shown between 5.30-5.45am.

Tony Higgins is Chief

Executive of UCAS