Higher Education: They all want my son's pot of money: George Low describes a typical foray into the rat race that passes for a university recruitment system

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The Independent Online
My youngest son received two cards last week to wish him well with his A-levels. One was from his grandmother, who never misses such occasions. The other was from Coventry University, looking forward to seeing him there as a design technology student in October.

The first was half-expected but welcome; the second a pleasant surprise, for Coventry was not his first choice on the UCAS form.

A few weeks earlier he had received a phone call, just after 10pm, from Derby University. 'We were impressed by your UCAS form,' said the stranger. 'We would like to offer you a place. Can you come and see us on Thursday next week to meet us and look round?'

When he hesitated and pleaded his revision timetable, another date was offered at once. 'Come whenever you can - we would be delighted to see you. Just book an appointment.'

The two incidents highlight the persuasive techniques being used by the new universities. In some subject areas, such as design technology and engineering, they are still short of customers and have resorted to telesales and mail-order techniques to reach the punters.

'They don't necessarily want your mind or your body,' I advised my youngest hopeful. 'They are after the big pot of money that your enrolment will bring.' Nevertheless, I had to admit that the customer-friendly letters and personalised correspondence were a welcome change from the 'take it or leave it' attitude of the older universities with their high-grade A-level stakes.

Some of these new 'old' universities treat further education college students like Scottish pound notes - probably negotiable, but they're not going to take the chance. Many of their admissions tutors clearly do not regard subjects such as environmental sciences or design technology as proper A-levels at all.

There appears to be a class of 'non-academic' A-levels (such as history of art, sociology or classical civilisation) that are poorly regarded by the old universities. This lack of esteem is probably the fault of the independent schools, which put less able sixth-formers in for these subjects to avoid lowering their UCAS point score averages in the more prestigious A-levels, such as history, physics and geography.

After considering a wide range of tantalising offers and wading through a mass of 'good university guides', my son has picked the courses he wants. His final interview was at Sheffield Hallam University, and he was made an unconditional offer within days. 'Just finish your course,' his admissions tutor said. 'No A-level grades required.' It was a relief for both of us, because the calls for distant interviews were putting a strain on the family budget and cutting down on his revision time.

Having been on the consumer end of the higher education rat race for the past 10 years, I am glad the end is in sight. The nonsensical regime of conditional offers based on A-level point scores is breaking down, and the efforts of the new universities to undermine it are welcome. 'If you don't get your grades, get in touch with us anyway and we will see what we can do' is the attitude of most new universities.

Jeff Rooker's Bill to change the dates of A-level results and base admissions on actual, rather than hypothetical, grades would ease the pressure on parents and students. The present lottery boosts the vanity of some headteachers and impresses some vice-chancellors who see average point scores of 28 plus as an index of excellence. But for average parents and students such batting averages are meaningless. There must be a better way of matching students to courses, without ruining everybody's summer holidays.

Roll on the day when students can sort their places out by Easter and spend the next six months earning some money. The way things are going they are likely to need ready cash more than A-level grades as a passport to higher education. But preferably the system should be based on motivation and ability, rather than luck or money.

(Photograph omitted)