Last week Ucas revealed a 4% rise in applications and over 87,000 more girls applying than boys, which got me thinking: are most schools still failing to inform their students about the alternatives to university and why are so many more girls applying to university than ever before?
Since tuition fees went up two years ago, I thought debts in the region of £50,000 would be enough to make anyone think about a future in higher education, especially with so little guarantee of interesting and well paid work at the end of it. However, based on the Ucas figures, it would appear not. Apprenticeships are on the rise and more and more companies are launching school leaver programmes, yet still it seems these opportunities are not being considered because, I imagine, there's still a stigma attached to bypassing university? When I first decided not to apply for university, it was a shock to friends and family, mostly because there was still very little information about the alternatives (hence my decision to create a platform informing others in a similar situation to mine).
But now there's daily news about the vast number of opportunities available to school leavers besides university, like apprenticeships, colleges, University Technical Colleges and gap year programmes. I realised when I was at my academic girls' school that as soon as A Levels were on the horizon, so was university, and that was that. No one ever mentioned other options. And yet, as so many of my friends are either settling into their first years at uni, or (often with some reluctance) back into their second, I find myself wondering why they didn't even consider some of these really exciting opportunities.
Deciding uni wasn't for me brings at least one major advantage, which is that I've travelled all over the country to see friends at their respective universities - and ironically, I think I can call myself something of an expert on the virtues and vices of student life, and the ups and downs of different cities and different campuses. But what seems almost universal is that very few people are loving the academic side of student life. Social life, sure, but a maximum of five or six lectures a week and an expectation that you should be a self-starter in all aspects of your life, not so much.
Long (very long) lie-ins, take away pizzas, and bathroom floors harbouring indescribable life forms also feature heavily.
But, given that we expect uni to be an extension of formal, structured learning, I - and most of my friends - are perplexed by a system that churns out endless reading lists, and pretty much expects you to get on with it. One friend, now in her second term reading history at Bristol, has had just one tutorial since she started. My mum, reading French at Newcastle in the 1980s, had as many lectures in a day as some of my friends have in a week.
When I first made the decision that uni wasn't for me, plenty of people challenged me but I was fortunate that my teachers recognised I wasn't cut out for academic life. At one level, I think they genuinely cared, but at another level, I'm absolutely sure their concern for good A Level results and league tables was a decider in encouraging me to move to a business college. It is simple - schools are judged almost entirely on academic achievements, ie, their exam results and how many pupils get into university - GSCE and A Level league tables have become the only barometer of a school's performance, which seems pretty crazy to me.
The fact that so many more girls than boys are applying to university also makes me curious. My instinct is that we are pushing apprenticeships and vocational courses more squarely at boys because they tend to focus on trades like building, plumbing or engineering which are traditionally associated with men? But maybe it's also because girls still feel a sense of inequality in the workplace and believe that they have to be even better qualified than most men to be taken seriously and I suspect this especially true in finance, law and accountancy - although none of these actually requires a degree.
However, the picture is slowly changing. Anouska Cope, a bright 20-year-old with excellent A Level results went to an academic school where university was considered the norm. She's enthusiastic and ambitious. Too ambitious to spend the next three years in bed with a pizza, so she started a PR apprenticeship this year, in a company with a professional development scheme that educates, challenges and inspires her almost every hour of every day. And she's earning a good salary. My guess is that in the next three years she'll have advanced her career to considerably beyond the point that today's undergraduates will launch theirs. And next week she's going back to her academic school to discuss alternatives to university. Like the sound of a career in PR? Follow Anouska's journey here.
To find out more about smart alternatives to universtiy, go to www.unisnotforme.com
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