Why do half of university applicants have no back-up plan?

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Students across England and Wales will today find out their A-level results, and according to a recent study by Which?, more than half have no back-up plan if their grades are not good enough to get them into their first choice university.

A startling 54% of the 367,940 A-level candidates with conditional offers admit that they have no plan B if they fail to meet their target grades and are not accepted by their chosen university, despite only 48% feeling confident about getting the grades they want.

Often pupils with conditional offers also have an insurance choice, which could be a different university or course with lesser grade requirements. The study of 1,012 students, however, found only 60% of the four-fifths of 17- and 18-year olds with insurance choices as back-ups wanted to go there. A quarter (23%) had an insurance offer with the same or higher entry requirements as their first choice.

Of course there is the option of Clearing, which admitted 12% of applicants last year, and which matches students without places to spare courses, as operated by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

But with many students not even thinking about what to do if their results are poorer than expected, almost three-quarters of applicants (70%) have not researched the clearing process for unfilled degree places.

And preparation is key for students entering Clearing, as having an idea of how the process works, of which courses and universities tend to have places available and who to contact can save much time and stress following results day.

Utter confusion

Whether blame can be placed on UCAS, the schools, parents or the students themselves, the study does show underlying confusion regarding the system, despite being used for many years.

For example, 54% of 17- and 18-year olds wrongly think they can still apply for another course through Clearing even if they qualify for their insurance choice university. A further 22% said they did not know whether this was true or not. In practice, a student who wants to take their chances in Clearing would have to give up their second choice university place – a risky move.

Which? University’s Sonia Sodha said: “A-level results day is an understandably stressful and nerve-wracking time for prospective students, especially those who aren’t confident they’ll get into their first choice university.
“Hopefully they won’t need a back-up plan, but we advise they research all their options just in case.”

A traditional university education remains the number one choice for many young people to provide a solid foundation of learning and life experience before moving into working life.

In fact, the number of A-level students with conditional offers for university has risen by 3% since last year, while the number of overall applicants for further education is the second highest on record.

On the other hand, apprenticeships have gained a lot of political and public support, allowing young people to combine work and study, avoiding large student debts and gaining valuable experience.

Nick Davy, higher education policy manager at the Association of Colleges says students have a wealth of educational options available to them which can be just as valuable as a three-year academic degree.

“These can include full or part-time higher education offered by colleges, which is often cheaper, and a range of professional certificates and diplomas such as marketing and accountancy. There’s also the option of an apprenticeship or higher apprenticeship in a range of occupations.

“Students need to weigh up what their employment prospects will be after degree study against the debt they will accrue and seriously consider what an alternative educational and training route may bring in terms of expense, career progression and financial rewards.”

Degree vs Apprenticeship, which one is for you? Check out our infographic which compares both options for you.

Jermaine Haughton is a journalist and digital media professional.

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