The changing world of university applications 20.01.17

When going through university applications with their eldest child, parents often remark on how different the system is ‘since their day’. This is undoubtedly true. In some respects, the UCAS applications process is more competitive for those universities with the highest profiles, as so many more young people are now going to university in comparison to 30 years ago. However, deregulation of universities and the tough funding situation they face means that universities are competing furiously with one another over the recruitment of undergraduates. As a consequence, other than in the ‘top’ 10 or so establishments, there is something of a buyers’ market for our 18 year olds.

The hierarchy of universities has certainly changed, even if Cambridge and Oxford still tend to be located at the top. One can always argue with the validity of league tables, but the range of establishments in the top 10 or 20 can sometimes be surprising to those of us who were submitting our own applications during the latter part of the last century. Loughborough University is a case in point. Thirty years ago, it wouldn’t have been considered a leading national institution except for those interested in sports science and elite sporting performance. However, its stock has risen considerably, and the most recent league table has it in 7th position, with a variety of other faculties such as Business & Management, and Engineering rated in the top 10 nationally.

Two new important categories have been integrated into the league table calculations reflecting the concerns of students today: student satisfaction and graduate employability. I would suggest that these are interesting indicators for your son to look at. Student satisfaction has become increasingly important as students expect much more of their universities for the £9000 + that they spend annually on tuition fees. It is no longer possible for the elite universities to rely on the quality of their research and to neglect their teaching. Students (and their parents who are often financing them) simply won’t stand for it! With a higher proportion of graduates in the population than ever before, employability is also a factor. If students are to leave university with upward of £30,000 debt, they want to be convinced that they will soon have the opportunity to pay it off.

Another point I should make is that boys and parents should look at the reputation of individual courses as much as the institution itself. League tables also exist by subject and the link that I supplied above, for example, shows that Durham is top in English, and Bath, which is not part of the celebrated ‘Russell Group’, is first in Architecture. I would like to stress that Grammar School staff, particularly Heads of Department, are an excellent source of advice on the most highly-rated courses for their subject, because they are engaged in annual research of the national picture on behalf of their pupils. The Russell Group of universities is, in some respects, a kitemark of excellence, but it should be noted that there are top institutions that have not sought membership of this ‘club’ but which consistently outrank Russell Group universities in performance tables. Bath, Loughborough and Lancaster spring to mind.

And what about Oxford and Cambridge? There can be no doubt that both retain a cachet internationally, and I believe it is still true, rightly or wrongly, that an Oxbridge degree can open doors. Oxbridge applications have become exceptionally competitive, as both institutions have sought to cast their nets as widely as possible, both among maintained schools but also internationally. In the past, both universities tended to interview all applicants. However the ratio of applicants to places has risen from 3:1 to 5:1 (even more acute in certain subjects) and the different Colleges cannot cope with these increased numbers. As a result, they have started to set pre-tests in early November (which are taken in school), after which they ‘deselect’ a number of candidates to make their job of interviewing more manageable. I am very pleased to say that the Endowed Schools do much better than the 5:1 ratio with our candidates, but I regret that it is still inevitable that some excellent candidates do not succeed. There are simply more qualified candidates than Oxford and Cambridge can accommodate.

An Oxbridge application is certainly worthwhile if you have the outstanding academic pedigree to back it up, but Oxford and Cambridge should not be seen as far superior to the remainder; the chasing pack has certainly upped its game, and in many cases scores more highly for graduate employability. Obtaining a place at any university for Medicine (or Dentistry or Veterinary Science) is certainly a comparable achievement that reflects a huge amount of commitment. Mr Parish runs a bespoke programme for these disciplines that starts early in Year 12 and between 10-15 boys annually tend to be successful.

The international dimension of universities has seen a big change. 20% of undergraduates in the UK are from abroad and the figure rises to nearly half of postgraduate students. British universities enjoy an excellent reputation internationally (which is why many institutions are hugely concerned about the consequences of losing EU research funding once Brexit has occurred). In addition, faced with funding reductions, overseas students are attractive to universities because they pay much higher fees. It is true also that more British pupils are looking abroad, and we have had boys attend European universities, many of which run courses in the English language. They are also a lot less expensive – although it isn’t clear post-Brexit whether British students will need to pay higher fees. The United States has also received more attention since UK annual tuition fees jumped past the £9,000 mark a few years ago. The US market is huge, with 4,000 establishments. Traditionally, a university education there has been considered to be unaffordable in comparison with a low-cost British version, but funding changes mean that the difference is no longer as significant, especially when it is considered that US universities offer a large number of generous bursaries and scholarships for students with all sorts of talents. I was speaking last week to an Old Loughburian who chose Harvard over Cambridge, and we are running more events that present the option of this alternative undergraduate education on the other side of the Atlantic.

Finally, you may have read an article in the press not long ago about schools getting pupils’ A Level predictions ‘wrong’ ( Teachers across the country have been criticised for over-predicting the majority of A Level results. Indeed, this year, I gave my colleagues the instruction to be ‘realistically optimistic’ in their predicted grades for boys. I mentioned earlier that we are, on the whole, in a buyers’ market for higher education. The number of undergraduates has declined slightly since the last rise in tuition fees, yet universities have to keep student numbers high in order to finance themselves. As such, many (but not all) will still admit A Level candidates who fall one or two grades beneath their school predictions. About 40% of the last Year 13 were given this benefit of the doubt by their first choice university. As a result, it makes sense for schools to err on the side of caution by making grade predictions that reflect the best possible result that an individual boy may achieve.

I hope that this has been an informative overview of the current university playing field. Even if your son is still some way from applying to higher education, you might be interested in finding out more on the UCAS website ( Do scroll down to the bottom on the homepage to find the section for ‘Parents and Guardians’.