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What’s wrong with a January start…?

A view from a high school counselling expert on suggested reform to the UK higher education admissions landscape: “In the northern hemisphere, school ends roughly around June, and university begins around September. Throwing in the southern hemisphere, the question is then about what students would do with their time before beginning university – the following calendar year.

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"I’d want to make it easier for students to come here, not more difficult"

“My colleagues complain of no references on file, not knowing the students”

However, any application process was guided while the student was still at school, pre-qualification. Deadlines would roll on – October 15 for Oxford, Cambridge, medicine, veterinary and earliest US applications, a big push for November 1, December 15 (for some Netherlands institutions) and January 1 (US), January 15 (UK) and then onwards to other countries and more rolling deadlines.

Surely then, a post-qualification application procedure with a January start – as being considered by UCAS – seems to be ideal for the UK? It would mean that students would be better informed about where and which course they should apply with ‘actual’ exam grades.

But wait a minute! How could it affect teachers, students and the application process?

Each year – and particularly this year – international counsellors expect to deal with a few students on a gap year, or for whom, for various reasons ‘things’ didn’t work out. This year, that number has increased.

My colleagues complain of no references on file, not knowing the students, and limited time to deal with them (let’s not talk time differences if they’re on different continents!)

And let’s raise the tricky issue of visas. No, not the ones the students will have to obtain after receiving their offer to study in January, but to stay in the country they received their education. Some require a student visa to be in full-time education. The extra gap between school and potential university start in Jan could be complicated.

Is receiving advice on making applications part of being in full-time education? If this is an international fee-paying school, how much does this cost?

If in a national school in another country, is the British Council extending its advising capacity (and knowledge) or are UK universities going to employ or utilise more agents?

“Is receiving advice on making applications part of being in full-time education?”

Those are just a few of the practicalities of a January start for undergraduate degree programmes. But a bigger issue: straight up competition.

How many international students in the northern hemisphere are going to want to wait until after they have finished their secondary education to even begin to make an application? Why not go to the US, the Netherlands, Ireland, or anywhere else that offers a September start?

In a post-pandemic future – with the stated aim being to increase international student enrolment at UK universities to 600,000 students – I’d want to make it easier for students to come here, not more difficult.

And while the start date aligns with the southern hemisphere, exam results come out there in mid-December, or early January. For a post-qualification system, do those students wait a year? Or will they apply with predicted grades?

Internationally, a UK university education is excellent and admired. So, also, is our admissions’ process.”

Elisabeth Marksteiner returned to the UK as an independent education consultant in 2018 after 27 years in Switzerland. She holds professional memberships of International and National Association for College Admission Counselling, Higher Education Consultants Association, and is an Affiliated Consultant of the Council of International Schools. She has a degree from Clare College, Cambridge, teacher certification from Roehampton Institute of Higher Education, and an MBA from the Open University. She believes in learning from internationalism.

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