Pre-Uni / Applications

Levels of Advice, and Understanding When It’s Not Needed

When you know what you want and have a good plan of how you want to achieve it, be careful before you blindly follow more general advice.

After my last post on reputation, I read an interesting Guardian piece on whether students should be encouraged to set their sights on Russell Group universities:

“…teachers now have an explicit incentive to focus on the “big brand” universities, following a controversial decision in the Department for Education last summer to collect data on how many pupils each school was sending to Russell Group universities. At a roundtable in the department this month, leading figures from outside the group will fight to derail this new measure – which has sparked a fierce row behind the scenes.”

The article mentions Sophie Cousens, who has been interested in marine biology since she was a child. Her main focus was to study the subject at Plymouth University. Cousens explains that she researched beforehand and was careful about making the right decision for her.

What interests you (photo by AlphachimpStudio)

What interests you? Where are you headed? (photo by AlphachimpStudio)

However, the Guardian reports that Cousens felt pressured to apply to a Russell Group university. The advice was seemingly for her own good, but she had already done the necessary research. Cousens had looked at Russell Group universities and found they either did not provide a marine biology course or that the course did not appeal.

Teachers had an incentive, as well as a piece of general advice which Cousens appears to have long surpassed. That advice may have been useful to some, but not to a person with clear plans. Unsurprisingly, there was a conflict of interests here. I doubt the pressure Cousens faced was spiteful. However, it does highlight that advice works on different levels.

When you have a detailed understanding of your aims, you’re in a good position. General aims are more likely, if not finding you draw a blank completely. None of this is to be ashamed of.

What’s important is to be aware of where you stand one way or the other.

Sophie Cousens knew what she wanted. General advice wasn’t helpful in this situation. Consider this point made by the Russell Group’s director, Wendy Piatt:

“All Russell Group universities demonstrate excellence and critical mass in research as well as a first-class educational experience, and excellence in enterprise and innovation.”

And the following comment from Vice-Chancellor of Exeter University, Steve Smith (Exeter being a member of the Russell Group):

“It does matter which institution you go to. The evidence is clear that it does affect your future, and we should encourage students to go to the best institution they can.”

Both Piatt and Smith provide a general argument to the situation. Whether or not ‘the evidence is clear’, this is different to Cousens’ individual research. These two perspectives view reputation in very different ways. In both cases, reputation has legs. There is no right or wrong.

As general advice, a push toward a Russell Group university may help a student with good grades and few plans ahead of them. I’m not saying the advice is correct, but it is one way to help someone think about the future, consider what they can achieve, and focus on a specific set of universities so they’re not overwhelmed. The question is, how many people are best served with this level of advice?

Cousens didn’t need pushing in that direction. As Steve Smith explains:

“I think it is a mistake to assume that everyone should aspire to go to a Russell Group university…There are other good institutions doing different things, and some great subjects that aren’t offered at Russell Group institutions.”

So where do you stand?

  • For students with a bold plan, advice should be about giving them the best chance of reaching that goal;
  • For students with a vague plan, advice needs to be tailored carefully to help them build something more concrete;
  • For students with good grades but poor plans, more general advice may be reasonable. Not everybody knows what they want, but that doesn’t make them a lost cause. At the same time, general advice should still be varied and not based on pressure toward a single goal, such as attending a Russell Group institution.

Excellence is apparent in different ways, just like reputation. Whatever level of advice you need, find what seems most useful to you and act on it accordingly, because that’s what matters.

“People always talk about, reputation...

The Stickiness of Reputation

Reputation brings baggage with it. Baggage is unavoidable. A once prestigious university would have to experience a high-profile disaster before it took down the generally high opinion of it amongst the public and/or anyone previously associated with the institution. By high-profile, I’m talking stratospheric.

For this reason, it’s no surprise that reputation is still seen as important from many perspectives, despite it meaning little in reality when it comes to teaching quality.

“Reputation measures are largely invalid as indicators of educational quality. Institutions with an existing high reputation may have a vested interest in resisting the introduction of more valid indicators of educational quality.” [HEA: ‘Implications of ‘Dimensions of quality’ in a market environment, p.13]

From an admissions point of view, parents and prospective students will be interested to find out which places have historical positive benefits attached to it, since both employers and alumni will see the subsequent benefit of the graduates emerging from the university each year. This may have little bearing on reality, but it’s where baggage comes into play.

Baggage (photo by striatic) CC BY 2.0

Taking it all with you. (photo by striatic)

No matter how hard you try, this mystical reputation is hard to shift. Reputation isn’t generally altered on a year by year basis either. For sake of ease, let’s take Oxford. You’re unlikely to find a situation where an employer quibbles over whether a job candidate graduated in 2010 or 2011.

That type of reputation consideration would be nonsense, unless a scandal was discovered on a grand scale in a particular year. It would also have to be the type of scandal impacting upon everyone attending. Or at least all members of a certain course. This is highly unlikely. The context would have to be pretty good and the employer would have to be pretty bothered about it to make those distinctions.

“It is uncertain whether the use of more valid indicators of educational quality will gradually change perceptions of what reputation is about, and turn it into a more useful guide to student choice.” [HEA: ‘Implications of ‘Dimensions of quality’ in a market environment, p.8]

So we’re stuck with reputation for now. Like it or not, it makes a difference. Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Either way, you won’t find out on which occasions it swayed decisions, so much of it happens covertly.

Will perceptions change regarding what reputation is about? I don’t see it around the corner any time soon, because perceptions run deeper than more detailed information and statistical analysis. In addition, reputations go deeper than institution level. And each institution can have all sorts of reputational perspectives that mean different things to different people.

The reputational baggage may be from hundreds of years in the past or all about last year’s results from a particular course. Undergraduate success may rest indirectly in past research findings or it may be down to a recent mutual partnership. One person may ride with the baggage positively, while another person gets thrown to the sharks.

“An increasing number of institutions are using data to track progress in emphasising the ‘institutional USP’. They are marketing themselves as distinctive in relation to a particular indicator, such as employability, and emphasising that variable in programme-level learning outcomes and in institution-wide quality enhancement efforts, and then collecting better data than are currently available in order to monitor progress.” [HEA: ‘Implications of ‘Dimensions of quality’ in a market environment, p.10]

An institutional USP [Unique Selling Point] is useful to sell the university and course, but can it act as a reputational selling point? Can the ideal of what makes an institution tick be captured in the essence of a brief USP? It may cement opinions that are already held, but how quickly could it sway opinions more favourably?

While I believe universities have an increasing need to specialise, I’m not sure reputation will change that easily for the vast majority. Over time–dependent on too many variables to allow predictions other than complete guesswork–the situation may improve (or, indeed, falter) due to priorities based on USP. Still, nothing is clear.

For now, reputation seems to fall very roughly into two camps. The historical and the recent. Some universities have the reputation in place due to age and the sheer amount of past baggage. Other universities have the reputation in place due to more recent events that caused a reaction that was often beyond their own planning or expectation. Historical narratives are more likely to hold their place in the long run, because that baggage just doesn’t disappear. In other words, baggage is helpful for those who are already helped by it.

As the HEA report discusses, more/better/greater data can assist staff to an extent, but reputation is never a given. That’s why I call it mystical. Good or bad, when perceptions are firmly in place, they are hard to change. And when there’s a blank (or indifferent) slate, change is unlikely to arrive overnight unless through unintended fluke. For the sake of the university, hopefully a positive fluke!

Worries that don’t go away…and how to make them go away

How different is it to be a student now compared to five years ago? Ten years? Twenty years?

The world continues to change. Your experiences are shaped by advances in technology. What you take for granted today may not have existed when you were born.

But how different are your worries compared to previous years?

Feeling anxious? (photo by jαγ △)

Feeling anxious? (photo by jαγ △)

A YouthInsight poll of more than 1,500 students has asked current students and this year’s uni applicants about their anxieties about campus life. Times Higher Education reports on the top five concerns as:

  1. Money (63%)
  2. Difficulties settling in (50%)
  3. Trouble making friends (48%)
  4. Getting on with flatmates (44%)
  5. Too much partying/drinking (22%)

There is nothing new in this list. And it’s understandable that you’d be worried about these things. For many, stepping on campus for the first time is also the first time away from the family home. The first time you’re fending for yourself in a major way.

If any of these matters are causing you anxiety, check out these links from the archives…


Settling In

Making Friends

Getting Along


Many of your worries may be similar to others around you. The cliché goes that you’re all in the same boat when you start university. Cliché or not, that means you’re all trying to make sense of what’s new. And that’s not always easy.

Remember, you’re not getting it wrong. You’re exploring and discovering. The awesomeness can take time.

It’s worth the wait. 🙂

The £9k exception norm

Today’s headlines on tuition fees are promising large rises. I’m about to discuss the fees announcement. But don’t be alarmed by the numbers.

MoneySavingExpert has a guide to understanding the new fees and loans system for 2012/13 and it’s worth checking that rather than worry about the figures in isolation.

The figures sound scary, but the reality is different. Whether you agree with it or not is a different matter.

There are underlying issues that could arise due to the government selling off loans in the future, but hopefully it won’t be something we need to cover. If you do want to read more about the sale of student loans, check out Part 3 of Andrew McGettigan’s report, “False Accounting? Why the government’s Higher Education reforms don’t add up” [PDF]. It’s also worth reading McGettigan’s recent post on finances at his blog, Critical Education.

Now on to the fees announcement.

photo by Leo Reynolds

photo by Leo Reynolds

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) has published details of university fees for 2013/14. The fees are even closer to the £9,000 cap than they already were for 2012/13, when the new fees come into play. FT’s data blog lists the full 2012/13 fees.

After financial support from all areas is taken into consideration, the estimated average fee for 2013/14 is set to be £7,898.

That’s once everything is taken into account. A potential difference of £1,102 between the adjusted average and the absolute maximum fee. Not exactly the suggested ‘market’ that was touted.

A yearly fee above £6,000 was supposed to be the exception. Many HE commentators weren’t convinced. In November 2010, I suggested that we should “expect to see the cap become the price“. It hasn’t taken long.

In March 2011, I acknowledged that finances and access agreements cannot be worked out in any short-term plan:

“It seems that, even without any changes to the proposed fees system in coming years, it’s going to take a couple of runs through the process before we get a true picture of what’s happening.” [Source]

The new fees regime for 2012/13 hasn’t even begun and the next year of fees has been set. Clearing doesn’t start for a couple of weeks, and that’s set to be different to previous years. Salford VC, Martin Hall, says that clearing is “no longer a mopping-up opportunity for those who didn’t get their expected grades to find a spare place”.

This is just the start.

It’s understandable that fees have long been the big talking point surrounding higher education since the changes were announced. Sadly, that’s been to the detriment of other HE discussions. Postgraduates, institutional diversity, student engagement, the loans system and its future, public perceptions and engagement with HE…There is so much to talk about. It’s as if fees talk got in the way of other conversations. Well, unless you were more directly involved or particularly keen on HE policy and wonk-talk!

For applicants, there is still little reason to limit choices based on tuition fees other than the occasional exception. In general, the slight differences are less important than other considerations. The new fees system was billed to give students greater choice. People would vote with their feet and not accept unreasonably high fees as a matter of course.

With fees set so close to the cap, where will those feet tread?

Many considerations are needed when making university choices. It depends on each person and why they wish to attend (including whether or not to attend at all). I’ve got a list of 50 things to think about for uni decisions. It’s not exhaustive, because that’s not possible.

Fees may not be so important in choices right now, but bursaries are still worth researching. Bursaries make an immediate impact, unlike fee waivers, because the money goes directly to the student. Prospective students should make sure they know what bursaries are available to them.

Some institutions may find new reasons to set very different fees once we’re a year or two into the new system. There’s no way to accurately foretell this because there are no direct comparisons. Also, any additional policy changes change the situation once more. And there’s still a lot of room for that to happen.

However, as things currently stand, it’s clear that fees are sitting firmly around that £9k cap. Who’da thunk it?