“My Dutch uni plans are going well,” says Josh Kay, 17, one of five students Education Guardian is following through sixth form. Josh, who is studying four A-levels in history, German, sociology and English at Stourport school in Worcestershire, is applying to read international relations at universities in the Netherlands as well as the UK, to boost his job opportunities and save money.
Last month, he clicked “send” on his applications to Maastricht and Groningen universities via the Studielink portal, Holland’s online application system, which works as Ucas does in the UK. “It didn’t take very long to apply, there was no personal statement, and less of a competition element at Dutch universities,” Josh reports. “I read somewhere it’s designed like that to give a chance to a variety of students. Now I’m just waiting to hear back.”
For Josh, the once pipe-dream idea of studying abroad is now seeming more realistic. “At the beginning, the prospect was slightly daunting. I thought it would be one of those ideas that gets forgotten, but now I’ve pushed myself, and the idea is becoming more exciting,” he says. Back in the UK, he received offers from Birmingham, Manchester, Swansea and East Anglia universities, but is still waiting to hear from the London School of Economics. “I check Ucas every other day,” he says. “They haven’t rejected me yet! I have heard LSE can take longer to respond than other universities.”
Josh, who lives with his 15-year-old brother, who wants to join the RAF, his dad, a carpenter, and mum, who works for an aerospace company, is turning towards revision. “The week before half term was focused on coursework, but now my drafts for English and history are in, so it’s all revision at the moment,” he says.
Any spare time is filled with university visits. Josh attended an open day at Manchester in the middle of February to check out its accommodation and course facilities. “It was useful and I got to speak to current students about the options in my degree, like studying a language,” he says. “I have a subject day at Birmingham coming up too.”
But money issues are also starting to come into focus. If he starts uni this autumn, Josh will be part of the last cohort to pay the current, lower university fees. “An information evening at my sixth form cleared up some issues about the new fees and confirmed that our year group will not be affected,” he says. “But I do feel tuition fees are not fair on students. People complain about paying for us students, but we will actually end up contributing more to the economy through higher taxes for things like healthcare and mass education.”
Josh is worried for next year’s students, explaining: “My main concern is about the creation of a two-tier university system, with cheaper but poorer quality universities for poorer students, while students from more privileged backgrounds can go to the more expensive, elite universities.”
All the talk about the fight for university places being harder than ever this year – with more demand but the same number of places as last year – is also making this sixth-former feel akin to a circus performer. “I’ve been aiming to get into university for many years, making sure I get good grades, do well in school, be involved, undertake work experience and all sorts of extra-curricular activities and all I’ve seen while doing this is more and more hoops being put in for students to jump though,” he says. “I’m not saying getting into university should be easy, but students are doing so much more than previous generations had to do.”
After all that hard work, Josh wants to take time out to relax this summer. “Friends are talking about various things, but nothing concrete has been decided yet. I’m thinking of going around Europe for a few weeks, possibly visit a few countries and spend some time somewhere hot. But it all depends on what friends are doing, plus whether I’ll be going to Holland or not.”
For year 12 student Danielle Fox, 17, the prospect of starting uni is still more than a year away, but it’s nonetheless starting to grow more important. “I’ve made a lot of enquiries to universities recently, including looking at Leeds University for Japanese studies as I love Japanese art, and Falmouth uni for an illustration course,” says Danielle, who is studying a two-year BTec subsidiary diploma in art and design, plus photography A–level, at Plymouth Marine Academy. “Uni is a big topic for me. At school, we’ve been put into groups with a teacher to help us look at courses and the Ucas site. We want to know what we have ahead, and organise the directions we’re going to take to help our studies.”
Danielle is currently interested in studying art, illustration or Japanese culture. She’s already concerned about the debt she’ll face from the new, higher tuition fees if she starts university next year, which could be as much as £9,000 a year. She expects to have to take on part-time jobs to afford university, but doesn’t want the financial side to determine her uni choices. “I haven’t looked at any details about costs at the moment, because I want to work out which path to take and the universities I may go to before having to worry about the fees,” she explains.
At college, Danielle is enjoying her art and photography classes most. “I’m looking forward to a sculptor coming in soon to help our class with our current project, designing a sculpture for the National Marine Aquarium [in Devon],” she says. “I’m enjoying my A-levels – they’re challenging, but I think I will pass with the right help.”
She, too, is looking ahead to the summer, and hoping to take her first holiday with friends. “We’re planning to take a trip out of Plymouth, staying somewhere on a caravan site for a week,” she says. “We want to learn to be more independent so we’ve started saving up.”