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Clearing the Way: How Can Universities Remain Attractive in the Face of Financial Pressures and Corporate Alternatives?

13/08/2015 11:55 BST | Updated 12/08/2016 10:59 BST

A-level results week has finally arrived and young people up and down the country will be nervously opening their envelopes. Many will be hoping that two years of hard work become a passport to university. Some might have been tempted to take a year out to reflect on their next step, but Chancellor George Osborne's recent announcement that student grants will be scrapped from 2016 might give them cause to think again. Students who are eligible for a grant know this is their final opportunity to avoid being saddled with £50,000 of additional student debt.

Increasing the costs also increases the stakes for those who were always planning to head straight into higher education. Students with better results than expected will seek to trade up via adjustment to secure a place at a university previously thought beyond their reach. Students who fail to meet their predicated grades might shun the option to re-sit exams and instead settle for another institution through clearing.

The result: a clearing week busier and more competitive than the higher education sector has ever seen.

For universities, this will only accentuate an already aggressive contest to win over the best, brightest and most discerning students. Higher expected debts will make the university decision more commercial than ever before, and many students will focus first and foremost on employability and how they will pay back those loans.

This commercial struggle will play out on three fronts; between courses, between universities, and between sectors, as higher education is challenged by large corporates - the big consulting firms among them - who now offer talented young people training, apprenticeships and career prospects right out of school.

So, how can universities make their value clear? Three approaches are worth exploring:

• Emphasise the value of dedication: while a good education can lead to a good job, it also displays a commitment to higher learning and leads to a richer human experience through study. How do you put a price on that?

• Offer the best of both worlds: increasing numbers of universities now offer a 'sandwich placement year' through their courses. This allows them to provide students with both the university experience and exposure to working life.

• Move towards US-style 'major/minor' degrees: educate students to prepare them for work in the cutting edge sectors fed by STEM subjects, while also equipping them with the tools to think critically and ethically about the world by taking courses in the humanities and social sciences. Why not Engineering and Climate Ethics, or Computer Science and Mandarin?

This week, the pressure is on for students to find a place and for universities to win them over. But after the mad rush to bring in last minute recruits will come the even bigger challenge; to compete successfully over the long term in a marketplace with more players and more competition than ever before.