Headmaster’s Blog 23.02.18

The Changing University Landscape

One of the questions that I am asked most often by parents considering Loughborough Grammar for their sons is undoubtedly ‘where do your boys go when they leave?’ I usually respond that the most important thing is that boys are going to the university that offers the right course for them. Often, this answer is received with a certain scepticism, as if the Headmaster has something to hide, so I tend to then refer to the percentage of boys attending Russell Group universities. Even this isn’t very helpful because there are some excellent institutions that are not part of the Russell Group, not least Loughborough University that emerges consistently in the top ten of national university league tables.

The problem is that it is increasingly difficult to define what constitutes a ‘top’ university. Loughborough University is sometimes omitted from discussions of elite institutions because it does not have a medical school. However, it scores very highly for teaching quality and student experience, and appears in lofty positions in many of the league tables. Since the advent of university tuition fees, students have become more demanding in their expectations, and student experience, graduate employability and teaching ratings are closely scrutinised. There is a lot more information on courses than there used to be, and schools and Sixth Formers look increasingly at the reputation of individual faculties rather than the institution as a whole.

Nevertheless, the ‘Russell Group’ is a useful badge of quality. In Britain, the university one has attended is still seen as indicative of your intellectual acumen, and I advise boys to consider this, particularly when they are struggling to make a final choice between two tempting university offers. It might well not be fair, but a degree from Bristol or Birmingham may make you more attractive in the eyes of an employer than one from Heriot Watt or Hertfordshire.

So where do LGS boys go? In 2017, they went to 44 British institutions plus 4 abroad. Sheffield was the most popular (10 places) and it, together with Leeds, is often a destination of choice for geographical reasons; they are far enough away from home, but not too far! Second last year was the London School of Economics (9 places). This is more unusual, but Loughborough boys do like to head to the bright lights of London: no fewer than 25 of our 2017 leavers are now studying at Imperial, LSE, UCL, King’s or Queen Mary’s.

And what about Oxbridge? There is certainly something about a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, but young people receive a lot of mixed messages from the media. There is an anti-elitism that appears to be gaining ground in the UK, and Oxford and Cambridge are often criticised (wrongly in my opinion) as being bastions of privilege and worse. At LGS, we often have to fight to reverse the perception that Oxbridge is only for ‘toffs’ from Eton and Harrow, not for ‘normal’ boys from the East Midlands. We run an Oxbridge preparation programme, because we think that academically-minded young men should aspire to these most competitive of courses. It’s important to understand that Oxbridge has become tougher and tougher, because they are attracting both more applicants from maintained schools and foreign students, who are attractive in these financially-straightened times due to the high fees that they pay. It’s also important for parents to realise that we cannot turn their son into a strong candidate unless he has the intellectual fire burning inside him. Successful Oxbridge applicants show passion for their subjects and this cannot be faked even with the most detailed preparation. Forcing a boy to apply to Oxford or Cambridge will always be counter-productive – he must want to challenge himself.

I am asked frequently about the Oxbridge statistics for the Grammar School (we have achieved 93 places in the last ten years), but I never like to focus on this, because there are other universities that are similarly competitive. For example, achieving a place at Imperial College or University College, London is just as impressive, as is success in applying to Medical College – a destination for an average of 11 boys per year.

An unwelcome trend in university applications is the unconditional offer. In other words, students are being offered places without having to achieve specific A Level grades. With university funding under pressure, we are in a buyers’ market, and the second tier of universities in particular are fighting to ensure their financial survival. They need your sons’ £9000+ annual fees! Universities claim, rather disingenuously, that these unconditional offers reduce the stress felt by students about their impending A Levels. I’m sure they do, but the research shows (and this is backed up by our experience at LGS) that boys with unconditional offers tend to fall well short of their predicted grades, because there is no urgency to their revision. It is important that all students achieve the best A Level grades they can, because they are not just a passport to university; they will remain on CVs for life, and employers make assumptions about you based on your performance at the age of 18. If your son receives an unconditional offer, please be wary of the consequences.

Finally, a word about non-university options. Although university has remained the route for about 97% of Loughburians, each year a small number of independently-minded boys opt for employment routes or apprenticeships. In 2017, no fewer than 24 LGS boys left to embark on university Engineering courses. For such a vocational course, why not leave debt behind and study in the workplace? I was reading recently about the Dyson Institute of Technology, which offers a 4 year degree from Warwick University, while youngsters are paid a salary and have their university fees paid by the company. What isn’t there to like?

There is the obvious attraction of earning a wage, but it takes confidence to set off in a different direction to one’s peers. I really would encourage boys to consider these routes and I’m sure that, within the next decade, thousands of youngsters will be putting debt behind them to learn on the job.