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19 August 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:14am

Telling students to “aim lower” is not the way

Thousands will miss out on a place at university this year, but perversely there will still be empty

By Sally Hunt

The crisis over university places this year took a damaging twist this morning when the universities minister, David Willetts, advised students to lower their sights when considering university next year. The minister’s comments will presumably not have gone down well with the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who spent yesterday spelling out his plans to improve social mobility.

Education has the power to change people’s lives and should be the driving force in any efforts to improve social mobility. So it must be acutely embarrassing for Clegg to hear Willetts tell students to apply to “less competitive” universities next year. After years of being inspired to aim higher the coalition government is actually telling students to aim lower.

Simply asking some students to temper their university ambitions cannot hide the fact that roughly 200,000 students are set to miss out on a university place this year. If some students “aim lower” then all that would do is lower the chance of a different group of students securing a place. It would not reduce the number of people missing out overall.

A-level results day invariably features a set of photogenic triplets collecting their results and a thoroughly predictable row involving even more predictable personalities about standards falling or students’ achievements not being properly recognised. The days and weeks that follow usually see newspapers listing the courses available through clearing for students who either missed out on the grades they needed or performed better than predicted and would like to reconsider their options.

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A-level results day will be different this year, though. A triple whammy of the coalition government refusing to fund additional student places, a huge increase in the number of people applying to university and the spectre of huge fines hanging over universities who dare consider recruiting too many students means that clearing may be virtually non-existent and any places that are available are likely to be snapped up straight away.

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Despite all the problems we may end up with the perverse situation that, in the year when record numbers of students are unable to get a university place, we still end up with a considerable number of empty places when term begins.

Universities in the past could afford to be somewhat flexible with the number of places they offered at clearing. History taught them that not all the students they offered places to would turn up. However, this year they cannot afford to take that risk in case all the students turn up and the university is hit with fines for over-recruitment.

To make matters even worse, there are fears that more students than normal may change their mind on a clearing place or drop out this year. A student who has spent his or her life working towards degree X but fails to make the grade might snap up a place on degree Y through clearing, but then decide that it is not for them.

While all the advice to youngsters who do miss out this year is not to panic and to take stock, it is understandable that many will get caught up in the mad scramble for places. Let us not forget that they have been told to “aim higher” and aspire, and apply to, university their entire academic careers. For the vast majority a gap year travelling or doing unpaid work to get experience is not a realistic financial option.

The real answer to the crisis is not to ask people to temper their ambition, but to invest in Britain’s young people and create the extra places that are in such demand. Too many bright teenagers will be left with no educational place this summer and to chance their arm in the most competitive job market for years. We risk consigning a whole generation to the scrapheap of inactivity.

Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union.