Competitive Edge

Competitive Edge

James Turner looks at the growth in applications to the Trust’s summer schools.
James Turner on March 13, 2014

James Turner looks at the growth in applications to the Trust’s summer schools.

If any further proof was needed that the education space was becoming more competitive for young people, you just need to look at application numbers to two of our flagship programmes this year: the US university programme received over 10 applicants per place and the UK summer schools had a record 10,000 applicants for just under 2,000 places.

This latter figure was almost 3,000 higher than the year before, and 2,000 higher than the bumper year in 2012 when higher tuition fees hit home.  As always, certain subjects remained the most in demand: medicine was head and shoulders above the rest, and law, maths and engineering were all very popular choices.  In its first year as a Sutton Trust summer school, the Royal Veterinary College had 200 applicants for 50 places.

To a large degree this impressive reach into the state school sector is testament to the impact of work being done by partner universities and the Trust to promote the summer school scheme to the right students and schools. We especially want to hear from young people in schools and colleges which rarely send students to leading universities, and we have produced a pack of resources which teachers, advisers and others can use to promote the programme with parents and students.  More candidates is only good news provided they are from the backgrounds the programme is designed to benefit.  The creep of the ‘usual suspects’ is a constant challenge that we need to counter.

But these numbers also reflect the fact that education generally is becoming higher stakes.  And this is not isolated to university entry.   For instance, the Trust has long documented the surge in numbers of students receiving private tuition to give them a competitive edge.  And the highest performing state schools are becoming more oversubscribed and, as a result, more socially exclusive than the areas in which they are sited.  Our research has also shown that students are increasingly looking to gain postgraduate qualifications to differentiate themselves from others.

Of course it is to be welcomed that parents, students and teachers are investing more in education decisions.  But, from the Trust’s perspective, it is essential that these options are not just for those with the financial means.   Competition needs to be fair.  So, we need to make sure that good out-of-school academic support, such as that provided byInto University and others, is available more widely, not just to those who can afford £30 or £40 an hour; that popular schools use banding and ballots as well as house prices in determining who gets a finite number of places; and that there is an affordable model of postgraduate funding which doesn’t deter talented graduates from modest homes.  And, going back to where we started, it is why it is so important our summer schools, and schemes like it, continue and grow: so that it is not just well off students that can make strong and informed decisions about university.

Good luck to all those young people who applied to our summer schools this year: the good news is the programme can accommodate more of you than ever before (three times as many as in 2010, in fact).  For those of you who are accepted, it is bound to be a great week which will boost your confidence and strengthen your applications.  For those who aren’t, be heartened by the fact there is other support out there from other charities and the universities themselves (see accessprofessions.com for some great alternative opportunities).

The downside of competition is that there are winners and losers; but one set back shouldn’t deter you from realising your aspirations.  A rejection from a summer school isn’t the same as a rejection from a university.   Merit is about both talent and effort, and ‘resilience’ is the buzz word on everyone’s lips.