Extra-curricular activities: A skill-set for higher education

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How can co-curricular activities widen access to higher education? Teacher Clive Greenhough discusses the findings of new research showing the increasing importance of a broad range of skills

Access to education is a basic human right. One obligation of this entitlement is to develop equitable access to higher education. However, increasing widening participation within higher education does present something of a challenge.

Unfortunately solutions to this challenge, while full of good intentions, remain difficult to implement and measure. Academia is rightly concentrated on grades, as these are one of the only metrics that universities can use to determine the success of prospective students. 

Of course, there is also the matter that the more students with higher grades that a university attracts, the higher it will move up the league tables, thereby attracting more students. It’s a bit of a catch-22.

Widening participation, however, is focused on widening access for all; increasing the number of young people entering higher education, especially those from under-represented groups (i.e. from lower income families, those with disabilities, and those from ethnic minorities). 

At the Royal Grammar School, we have always believed that co-curricular activities are a great way to develop a skill-set that can help students from all backgrounds to succeed later on in life, whether they choose to go to university or take an entirely different path. It is encouraging, therefore, that academic excellence and co-curricular personal development no longer need be mutually exclusive in the eyes of universities.

Recent research by World Challenge into the university admissions process has shown that non-academic experience is becoming increasingly important to admissions advisors (see further information for more details on the research).

There are many reasons for this: the removal of the student cap, a changing student demographic and the fact that graduate employability is an aspect of league table measurement. Whatever the reasons, this is a change in perspective that I support wholeheartedly.

Politics has also placed much emphasis on the widening participation agenda over the last couple of years, and it is no secret that universities are being required to diversify. It is gradually becoming understood that grades are no longer the sole factor in measuring potential.

Take, for example, medicine – one of the most popular degree choices, which requires mostly, if not all, As in the sciences at A level. But if we look at the skill-set required of a doctor, it is clear that academia cannot claim responsibility for the development of all the soft skills necessary to succeed in this career path. Communication, empathy and teamwork are all vital characteristics, yet they are not key components of the A level biology syllabus. This is where the demonstration of relevant extra-curricular activities becomes important.

For example, one head of admissions quoted in the research said: “For the caring professions, having experience like volunteering will be more relevant than (the difference between) that A or A* grade.” 

Likewise, for students whose academic achievements may not necessarily serve to highlight their true potential, co-curricular activities can be used as a benchmark for universities to determine the kind of student they are likely to be. 

Among those quoted in the research is Dominic Davis from City University London, who noted that whereas “consistency is something you can apply when assessing academic requirements, when you look at learning about what each individual student can offer to the university, it is more difficult to quantify”.

Academic achievement, however, is becoming more difficult to quantify and place in context. The decoupling of A and AS levels means that the most recent academic benchmark that admissions teams will have when assessing applications will be GCSE results. 

This represents a two-year academic gap; a gap where we know a massive jump in achievement is made by students. The difference between 

A level and GCSE examinations is drastic; therefore how can GCSE results be used by universities to accurately determine a prospective student’s potential? Cambridge University’s opposition to this decoupling is telling of how it will affect the sector.

In addition, the use of academic achievement as a consistent benchmark becomes less relevant with recent HEFCE research showing that a student’s level of attainment at A level is relative to the average of his/her school, while degree outcomes are not affected by average performance of the student’s school (see further information for more detail).

While modern universities have always been ahead of the curve with regards to the widening participation agenda, traditional universities have recently faced some criticism.

Jane Glanville, from higher education body London Higher, said that traditional institutions such as the Russell Group “are under more pressure to be more flexible, especially when looking at state school applications”. 

She added: “For an institution that doesn’t move in that direction it would soon become apparent that they have been left behind, and it is therefore in their best interest to demonstrate that they are moving forward.”

So, research suggests that a school’s performance has an impact on A level grades, but not on degree attainment. The decoupling of A levels means that predicted grades are losing their weight. And universities are in an arms race to demonstrate modernity by implementing a fairer admissions process, with the widening participation agenda a constant in the back of their minds. 

World Challenge’s research suggests, therefore, that students from widening participation backgrounds stand a better chance of getting into top universities by demonstrating their overall academic and non-academic potential than they were a decade ago.

Admissions teams interviewed for the research were keen to demonstrate that it is not the type of co-curricular experience a student has that is important, but its relevance to their chosen course and the skill-set it helps them to develop.

Michelle Davis, UK admissions manager at Coventry University, said: “Working part-time and volunteering in Africa may not seem like they have much in common, but we need to recognise that students have given equally large commitments.”

Interestingly, communication and organisation came out as the soft-skills most desired by university admissions teams surveyed, with 64.6 per cent prioritising evidence of good communication and 

46.2 per cent good organisation.

As Karen Pichlmann, head of admissions at Bournemouth University, said: “I think that many of these extra-curricular skills are crucial for university life as well as study.”

The focus on ability to succeed within university life and post-university is not coincidence: “We put a huge emphasis on co-curricular from an employability perspective,” added Wray Irwin, head of student employability and engagement at the University of Northampton. 

This is because of greater awareness in an increasingly competitive job market: “It’s fully understood now that to get a good graduate job after university it is about having other stuff as well as the 2:1 or First,” said Dr Robin Mellors-Bourne from career development organisation CRAC. 

This has filtered down to sixth form level, with Justine Tipler, director of sixth form at Ossett Academy in Yorkshire, noting that universities need “to see the seeds of people who will leave their university and go and make their mark on the world”.

This is promising, as teachers, both at the Royal Grammar School and in schools across the country, we are, at a fundamental level, concerned with the wellbeing of our students and are motivated by a desire to see them succeed, whether this be academically or otherwise. 

We want them to go on to good jobs, and be happy in what they do. Universities are now catching up to the fact that the majority of students who come through their doors are studying to increase their employability prospects, as well as due to a burning desire for knowledge. 

As a teacher I take confidence in what this report highlights. The UK should be proud of the calibre of its universities, and the academics that it has produced over the centuries, and it is pleasing that the government is taking steps to promote our students’ learning beyond the classroom. 

However, a quick implementation and adequate funding to ensure the promotion of co-curricular activities in all schools would further help to develop all young citizens of the future in this ever-changing and competitive world.

  • Clive Greenhough is director of co-curricular activities at the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe.

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