I’m at a top 1% uni – am I smarter than you?

All of our academic lives, it seems, revolve around rigorous and regular testing geared towards preparing us for the working world. Or, simply put, towards university. For this is seemingly the only credible destination for young people throughout their final years of compulsory schooling. Flashback to the personal statement workshops and higher education conventions that became increasingly frequent throughout sixth form. Certainly, much of our school experiences are aimed at propelling us towards higher education. Thus, with record numbers of university applicants each year, the initial assumption for those who don’t go at all is that they failed, or they simply weren’t smart enough.

And yet, despite the emphasis on ‘initial assumption’, with new plans from the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, for more “robust” tests for seven-year-olds, testing and academia seems set to become even more ingrained as part of our national psyche. Although they attempt to tackle underachievement, such proposals – as well as a new requirement for 90% of pupils to take a humanity or a language at GCSE – reinforce the idea that if you are not good at academic subjects, you are not clever.

Even more worrying that this danger of disenchantment, however, is the way in which these changes threaten to increase the competitiveness and snobbery surrounding league tables of both state schools and universities alike. Anyone who has attended a Welcome to UEA talk at an open day can tell you that the fact we’re at a university globally ranked in the top 1% is a matter of the utmost importance – mainly due to the fact that they manage to squeeze this statistic in at least twice.

Whether this really does matter, or whether it’s the consequence of the sorely felt presence of Cambridge, this is a statistic many of us have taken a small sense of pride in: we are ‘above’ the other 99%. Such is the prestige of getting into a high-ranking university. With presumably higher grade boundaries, you presumably achieved higher grades, and so, presumably, are smarter. However, is spite of how this logic might appeal to our egos, in a society where it is becoming increasingly difficult to find graduate employment, the question begs itself: do grades even matter anymore?

Had the question been simply, ‘do grades measure intelligence?’, the answer might be easier to determine. In my opinion, a resounding ‘no’, as witnesses of my first visit to the laundrette can verify. But do grades actually count for anything? From the discovery in induction week that A-levels apparently count for nothing now, it seems the answer to this is also negative. Recall that crushing realisation of being thrust back to that post-GCSE feeling that the past two years of stress and worry equate to nothing now you’re at the next stage, and that everyone is now relievingly, and despicably, equal. This statement, however, whilst capturing the sentiment of the time, risks being too general. Rather, grades are the stepping stones to get you to the next stage in pursuing your career path. Not definitive, but equally not unimportant.

Why then, can the same not be true for paths other than university? Why are they not seen as stepping stones to get to an equally commendable level of achievement in life? Inconceivable though it may be that not everyone wants a degree in Surf Science Technology from Cornwall University (no disrespect intended to Surf Science students or Cornwall), increasingly it seems that employers are placing greater value on the skills developed outside of higher education.

With the risk of delving into the somewhat patronising “different kinds of clever” speech prepared by many a parent for A-level results day, “Richard Branson never went to university” message nevertheless seems appropriate. Not everyone is ‘book smart’ as such, and increasingly this is becoming no bad thing.

While alternative routes such as apprenticeships and work experience are gaining increasing clout with employers, the sad fact remains that for many academically able young people, not going to university is a matter of financial improbability rather than personal preference. A £27,000 debt to repay is simply too much for many prospective applicants and, following the government’s decision to scrap maintenance grants, it remains to be seen whether this change will have any effect on the number opting to attend university.

The idea of league table ranking equating to intelligence is consequently largely discredited, especially when considereing that the highest-ranking universities – UCL, Imperial, and Oxford – are in some of the most expensive areas of the UK. With the average London student estimated to pay £287 a week for accommodation and travel, it seems clear that students increasingly have to pay the top money as well as achieve the top grades to be esteemed as the most intelligent in society’s eyes.

Does going to a top 1% university make us smarter than those who don’t go at all? Not necessarily. That’s not to say, of course, that degrees have no value in today’s working world; rather, they are the gateway to us achieving our own personal goals, just as those who don’t attend have separate means of reaching theirs. Neither should be regarded as superior to the other simply because of a somewhat backwards tradition of heeding statistics and league tables. With more than ever attending university, fuelling the debate on the worth of higher education in employment, our generation will be the one to see which comes out on top. I wouldn’t judge just yet.


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April 2021
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