A question of degree

Advising students on which universities to apply to is one of the most rewarding aspects of a head of sixth form’€™s job

Let’s be honest here, handling university admissions is a beast of a job. For the head of sixth form, in an otherwise fairly pleasant job, it is a bitter pill to swallow.

In September, students in year 13 are gathered together for a talk about UCAS and from then on a relentless cycle of counselling and recounselling students, their parents and, more often than not, the entire year 13 tutor team begins. Personal statement workshops, after-school form-filling sessions and late nights where the chosen book at bed time is yet another prospectus and an AA road map (I still don’t know where Edge Hill is) become part of the daily routine for what seems like an age, steadily leeching away at the time they thought they were going to have free this year.

This is, of course, discounting the Oxbridge applicants, the medicine, dentistry, drama school and art applicants who all need handling like they’re plutonium, the USA applicants and the one student (because there will always be one) who wants to go and study “somewhere in Europe”.

Following a Christmas break punctuated by telling bemused relatives about the range of courses available at a particular university, a conversation no one enjoys or understands, our hero, the plucky head of sixth, now enters the season of offers and rejections. After picking up the pieces of the Oxbridge hopeful, the London College of Fashion hopeful, the Any Medical School Anywhere hopeful and found them viable alternatives, they’ve then got just enough time to sit in the corner and rock back and forth for an afternoon before the first over-enthusiastic year 12 knocks on their office door and asks for a chat, probably about medical school. And so it begins again.

I held this role for five years and I can honestly say I loved every minute of it. Helping students on to the next stage of their life, particularly their first tottering steps into adulthood, is something I found immensely rewarding, but it is a challenge, and can be all the more so when dealing with International students.

Some 430,000 international students start a UK degree every year, so UCAS tells us, and the majority of them apply from outside the UK. That, of course, holds its own set of challenges, but what about the relatively small number who are already here? The ones you and I deal with every day. Are they any different to UK students in their expectations, reservations and dreams?

The simple answer is ‘yes’, for many reasons. The first one being an international student’s understanding of what university actually is. In most countries around the world, particularly in Europe, students simply attend their local university unless they want to study something particularly specialised. This begs the question where do international students get any idea about what going to university in the UK is like?

Of course, some simply assume it is a continuation of boarding school and spend the first week wondering when someone is going to bed check them and where they should register. For these students, questions which UK students naturally raise often don’t even come into the frame. How far is the accommodation from campus? How do I eat? Do I want to be in the town or country? The first few weeks at university can often be as traumatic as their first days at a UK boarding school as they struggle to adapt to the lack of structure when their daily lives at school have been carefully managed for them for so long. Then there is the other end of the spectrum, the ones who’ve watched ‘Animal House’ and ‘Road Trip’ on a constant loop for the last two years. Imagine their disappointment when they discover that, in fact, they actually have to do some work and toga parties are not a weekly event. Once again, these students can be left feeling isolated and demoralised for a completely different set of reasons. You might be thinking that these students are the creations of my own imagination, but I have had to mop up disastrous examples of each type this year after parents contacted me in some distress. Both students had been educated in the UK for their A-levels but both had been sadly misguided on their expectations for higher education. What had been lacking from both these students’ otherwise excellent education was a chance to visit universities for a day or more and inoculate themselves against the reality or just a simple presentation from student ambassadors or somebody else young and relevant on what it’s all really like.

Parents are often similarly confused by the idea of university in the UK and cling to league tables as an indicator of success, failing to realise that research is what places universities high in the traditional rankings and not more pertinent “soft” aspects of an institution such as how well students are cared for and the quality of undergraduate teaching.

The answer is to know the student, know the universities and then know the courses even better. Business studies is undoubtedly popular with internationals and it can sometimes be tempting to recommend the same five or six institutions over and over, but it may be worth the time to look at a student’s maths scores in detail. Not all business studies degrees are the same and I am always careful about advising students with only a GCSE or equivalent onto a business degree, with its traditionally heavy emphasis on statistics, when they could be doing a marketing or management degree instead.

The next stage is to manage expectations, both of the student and the parents. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat opposite a parent and in the first five minutes said the word ”Oxford” or “Cambridge”. Strangely they never seem to say Aberystwyth. Ultimately, it boils down to the same reason that my four-year-old son pesters me in the supermarket for particular cereals, they recognise the brand. It is important to start educating students and parents about the range of universities out there as soon as possible and to keep an open and honest dialogue with the parents about where might be appropriate for their child. In the end, not every child can go to Oxford, but they can all certainly go somewhere they can thrive and be happy.

Author Ted Underwood has over 13 years’ experience in international education as a teacher, manager and marketer. He is now schools’ director at Oak Tree International, a student recruitment and consultancy company for independent schools W: www.oaktree-international.com/ E: underwood@oaktree-international.com T: #TS Underwood


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