A student holding a book in the library

The past few weeks have seen thousands of students in Wales receive long-awaited exam results, following a return to pre-Covid assessment measures.

For students anticipating GCSE, BTEC, A-level or T-Level results, the wait can be an anxious one in any given year. For these 2022 cohorts, however, the run-up to results days was made particularly challenging amid extensive media focus on grades possibly being lower and university places more limited than was the case last year.

At Swansea University, our Clearing support begins well before A-level results day, with friendly staff available to field queries, via phone, email or webchat, from early July. And following the publication of individual results on 18th August this year, we fielded over 2,000 queries from those looking for guidance on their possible next steps into higher education.

We are proud of our commitment to supporting and reassuring our prospective students, and of our core message that grades are just one aspect of the decisions that we make about applicants to our courses. Within this period, it is easy to take a reductive approach to this next generation of learners, professionals and leaders, with people being viewed only through the lens of grade attainment. However, we know that each applicant is so much more than the letters or numbers that appear next to any given subject, and this approach shapes our admissions process at Swansea University. Throughout, we make efforts to see the whole person, taking the time to understand the experience and values that sit behind their grades.    

While places remain available for courses across the country, the focus of public discourse has since shifted to the growing number of international higher education students within the UK. I have long been an advocate for the considerable benefits of attracting students from around the world to institutions within the UK. The same arguments which are used in support of the necessity of outbound student exchange schemes, as seen with both UK Government’s Turing scheme and the Welsh Government’s Taith scheme, apply in the case of inbound international students. In this era of a truly globalised world, in which people, businesses and other organisations collaborate freely across national borders, it is vital that universities provide the opportunity for every student to learn, live and socialise across cultures and societies beyond their own.      

The fact that higher education in the UK remains such an attractive proposition to the rest of the world has long been regarded as a badge of honour. The experience of living and studying in the UK, and the prestige of holding a degree from a British university internationally, are such that the UK is the second most popular destination for international students in the world, behind only the United States in terms of student numbers. For Wales, as a country which enjoys a longstanding and enduring international outlook, it is clear that sharing our unique culture with the global citizens of the future is a powerful means of solidifying our place within the world.

At Swansea University, it is our core belief that our international and globally active student body contributes significantly to the transformative power of our overall university experience, as well as to the cultural diversity of the city and region which we were founded to serve. However, there is also an unavoidable economic reality at play within the broader higher education sector. The disparity between fees for international and home (UK) students is stark, with tuition fee caps for domestic students in the UK remaining almost static for over a decade. In England, the fee cap was initially set at £9,000 per year in 2012 and has only been increased once, to £9,250, in 2017. In Wales, it has remained at £9,000 per year throughout this period, while fees set for international students are commonly three times that.

In a period of high inflation, in which the real spending power of every individual and organisation has weakened substantially, can we be surprised that for some universities, economic necessity may be a contributing factor in the desire for larger international student cohorts? In the UK, it is well past time for a frank and honest public conversation about the true value of higher education and how it is paid for, which takes account of the current economic reality both for universities and for students, and acknowledges that we should not further disadvantage students who may be put off studying by higher costs.

My only hope is that within that conversation, when we consider the value of higher education, we do not make the same mistake that we can sometimes make with our young people, in reducing their whole value to letters or numbers. Every student is so much more than their grades and so much more than the tuition fees that they bring with them, in just the same way that the university experience is so much more than a mere degree certificate. In an era of eroding financial power, let us all strive to keep our focus on real value.

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