What do universities REALLY want from their new undergraduates …?

Dr. Helen Wright MA(OXON), EDD, PGCE, Chair of the Mark My Papers Board of Advisors writes a fascinating piece considering if vicarious domination of a child’s aspiration leads to disappointment for school, parent and student.

I could write at length – we all could – about any number of sub-groups of children and young people and how they have been impacted by the pandemic; I’d like to focus in, however, on one group of young people – this year’s school leavers who will be entering university in the autumn of 2021.

Why? Well, it strikes me that this group is at particular risk of being used as pawns in a battle that has little to do with them, and mostly to do with how other people expect them to live their lives. On the one hand, there is pressure from parents and schools to predict optimistic Centre Assessed Grades for school leavers in the summer, to ‘give them better chances’ and to ‘compensate for the harm of missing out on their learning’; on the other hand, the percentage of independent school students being offered places at Oxford and Cambridge is dropping, and this is causing anxiety and worry amongst parents – and even anger directed at schools. It feels almost too controversial to say that students should have to demonstrate that they are capable of succeeding at universities before they are granted a place.

What universities really need from their undergraduates is not a certain school, or a certain grade … they really need students who are intellectually curious, rigorous in their learning, genuinely interested in their chosen field, resilient enough to adapt to university life, and who really want to study. They want students who will thrive, who will stay the course, and whose performance will reflect well on the university as well as themselves. Yes, they want to be able to recognise latent potential and draw it out, and so yes, they will of course be open to offering places to students with non-traditional academic profiles … although what universities really want is for schools to have recognised and released this potential already. They certainly want schools to be assisting their school leavers in preparing them for the rigours of further academic study.

And what about these young people themselves? Perhaps if assume for a moment that any school leaver in the country could achieve straight As or A*s, and so in theory could qualify for any university course they might take, then this places this question into perspective. Now is absolutely the time for young people to be asking themselves what they ‘could’ do if they had the grades, and rather what they really, really want and need from their lives, so that we can help them understand how to make this happen. In my experience, this process often involves stripping away several layers of imposed societal or family expectations, from the extremes of ‘university isn’t for me’ to ‘I expect to go to Cambridge’, either or neither of which may be right … but the real help we can give young people is in assisting them in their exploration of themselves – their interests, their passions, their aptitudes and attitudes, and their aspirations (not ours). We also do young people no favours at all by saying ‘you ought to …’, if we do not back this up with opportunities for them to gain and develop the skills which they will need in order to be able to achieve this goal. 

So what does this mean for this year’s school leavers – next year’s potential undergraduates – as they look ahead between now and the autumn, with no formal exams in prospect, and schools distracted by keeping their communities safe, and making up ground lost by younger students? The best advice I can give to the school leavers is to keep themselves intellectually sharp – to read, study, learn, and not be afraid of submitting themselves to rigorous tests. Examinations, we know, are not the be-all and end-all of academic existence, but they certainly focus the mind. And for next year’s first year undergrads to respond to what universities need of them, they are going to have to rise, proactively, and determinedly, to the challenge. Whatever we as parents or schools can do to help them in this, we should.

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