Before I start, I want to define a couple of things for our broadly international forum, so that we understand each other when I start using acronyms and making assumptions about people's knowledge of the British educational system.
This is going to directly affect me for the rest of my life!
College is NOT the same as university in the UK. This is the most basic thing that I think most people probably understand, but it's pretty crucial to understanding the whole debate College refers to your time in Year 12/Year 13 between the ages of about 16-19, depending on your course. University is the same as American college/university, only most courses last 3 years (unless you're having a year abroad) and you MUST select your course before you apply: it is rare to switch courses mid-university.
A-Levels and AS-Levels: Fully "General Certificate of Education, Advanced Level", and "General Certificate of Education, Advanced Subsidiary Level". One takes AS Levels at 17 years of age/in Year 12, usually at a dedicated sixth-form college (sixth form is a term referring to the Year 12/Year 13 or A-Level years of school) or at the same school you took your secondary level certificates (GCSEs) at the end of Year 11.
AS-Levels are half of an A-Level. A-Levels are taken the next year at the age of 18/in Year 13. Most students select 4 subjects to take to AS-Level (although you can take more, this is discouraged) and then drop a subject to continue to A-Level with three subjects. Your grades in these subjects are used to decide entry to university, along with a personal statement and recommendation from your school, plus occasionally musical or sports achievement. Applications are made in the September at the beginning of your second year of college up to January, with applicants to Oxbridge (Cambridge/Oxford) having to apply by October the 15th. Art students can wait until March.
For example: I took 5 AS-Levels (on reflection, it probably was a bit too much work; you don't get any study time during school) - Economics, French, Government and Politics, English Literature and History. Next year I'm dropping English Literature to continue with the other 4.
UCAS is the central university application process for every university in the UK. To apply to university, one must apply through UCAS. In a way this makes things easier, because you have just one application to fill out. Unfortunately, it means you cannot tailor your application to a particular university you really want to get into in case you don't get in and then you get rejected from your back-ups because of your enthusiasm for your first choice.
University "offers" are sent out between January and April. When you are given an offer by a university for a place, they tell you what grades you have to achieve in your A-levels at the end of the academic year: for a Cambridge student, it might be A*AA; for a slightly less prestigious university like Southampton, it could be ABB, or even lower, depending on how much they liked you at interview or in your personal statement. This is also dependent on course: a law student is almost always offered AAA, a high demand on any student; someone intending to do film studies will probably not be placed under such duress. The final exams take place in June and July.
"Clearing" is a horrific word for a college student: it refers to the process by which students that did not achieve their offered grade find an alternate spot at a university that still has open spaces on it's courses. Needless to say, it's a mad, frantic scrap for these places at the top 20 schools, which disappear on the first day of clearing - the day results are released. This day was Thursday the 19th August this year.
What worries me as a British student who will be applying to university in October is the sheer amount of competition and sense of desperation now emanating from the whole process of university application. The British government under the Labour Party has engaged in a systematic overhaul of the university system in what they considered the interests of social equality, and as a result we now have far too many students without the necessary educational background pursuing university places because they've been told all their lives that that is the only acceptable educational endgame for them. Unfortunately, people's educational and vocational futures have been treated as a political weapon: a way for the government to say "look, we've created a fair and equal society for all, look at all these people in university!"
The problem is that when you give yourselves a target of getting 50% of the youth population of your nation into university, you fundamentally change the way the job market works. When this coincides with an economic crash, you have the ingredients for an utter disaster. People who were told that university was the way to get into a great job have found that just about everybody else going for every job - and there are a lot of people going for every job - has the same education level as them. Employers can no longer differentiate between graduates, and often demand experience which is really, really difficult to acquire at this stage. Having a degree means nothing.
At the first stage, students are facing this problem. Upon applying to university, we are told that we need a million extra-curriculars, volunteer work and another hundred different ways to differentiate ourselves (I'm lucky in that I already accidentally took a gap year in America where I did some great preparatory stuff for the course I want to take) to overwhelmed admissions tutors who cannot identify great candidates because of grade inflation - 27% of A-level students achieved an A or A* grade this year. Grade inflation has sprung from another Labour Party policy: dictation of the curriculum at the highest level of government and tight regulation of schools has resulted in teachers literally teaching to the test. At this point, do these tests demonstrate anything apart from a teacher's ability to read a syllabus?
There are many things I've touched on here that bother me greatly about our educational system and that I could easily rant about at length, but I feel I was already launching into TL;DR territory with my opening definitions If any of you go to websites like www.guardian.co.uk or www.economist.com and check out the education articles on there, you'll see a much more specialised debate.
This is going to directly affect me for the rest of my life! I want you to argue with me and tell me I'm wrong, tell me I'm participating in the media's hyperbole, tell me I've got the Labour Party and their intentions all wrong. Or alternatively, confirm all my worst suspicions. I just want to hear something that isn't the British tabloid press' echo chamber.