This week, Bhavini Phatak, Enrichment Manager at Bellerbys College London, offers insight into what universities are really looking for and what her college is doing about it.

Why five A*s are no longer enough...

“In recent months my team and I have been meeting and talking with international education agents about the college’s new enrichment programme for students.

The importance of what we are doing has taken some explaining. What we’re rolling out from September – putting every A-level and Foundation student through a carefully structured series of activities, workshops, tours, challenges and qualifications chosen to enhance subject-matter knowledge and experience – is an important leap into the qualitative unknown, different from the quantitative comfort of tallying up As and A*s.

The reason we’re shaking up the curriculum at Bellerbys is because of the way university places are awarded to our students.

We have hundreds taking A-levels with us every year on their way to study at a top UK university. Exam results and progression rates remain high across the four Bellerbys campuses in London, Brighton, Cambridge and Oxford. But if we look closely we can see that the correlation is loosening between exam results and offers from the best universities.

In straightforward terms, some students with good grades are getting better offers than students with similar or better exam results. These students all share similar characteristics, which have informed our thinking behind the enrichment programmes we’ve developed – they’ve demonstrably embraced extra-curricular development.

This trend also has implications for the other primary concern shared by international students and their parents: employability. If international education is an investment in a child’s future, then employability is the return. (My college is a specialist business centre, so it’s an appropriate metaphor!)

In university and in the workplace, academic achievement alone is no longer enough. Competition for places and jobs is such that students need to differentiate themselves.

The agents we met are enthusiastic about our colleges specialising by subject, as they will in September (Cambridge will focus on science and engineering, London takes business, and Oxford will specialise in arts, law and humanities). This makes it easier for them to direct students based on ambitions. However, they needed more convincing about enrichment, the term we use for activity streams that offer students much needed ways to differentiate themselves and develop deeper subject understanding.

We directed them to comments from Umut Uysal at HSBC Investment regarding our enterprise enrichment programme at Bellerbys London: “A truly exceptional programme that I have no doubt every student involved can look back on ten years later and realise just how much they learnt at an early age.”

The inference from Mr Uysal’s comment is that the international education community won’t be doing students justice if they don’t encourage them to think about employability early, especially if you consider that they now apply for internships midway through their first year at university.

Education should be comprised of core skills – i.e. academic study – but also employability skills starting with CV writing, interview technique, presentation writing and reference writing. This is the bare minimum and doesn’t scratch the surface of structured enrichment, relevant to today’s higher education environments and workplaces. During A-level or foundation degree study, extended projects featuring dozens of hours of teaching, concluding in a significant project demonstrating research, statistical analysis and presentation skills, is a far more compelling way to bridge the gap between total coursework guidance and unguided university work. Proposed guest speaker programmes with representatives from companies or organisations like GlaxoSmithKline, HM Treasury and PWC will offer motivation-boosting exposure to students’ chosen professions.

On our one-year GCSE programme, schedules are often so packed that enrichment is a harder proposition but taster programmes, essentially ‘enrichment days’, featuring visits to global companies (we have the Bank of England – Target Two Point Zero – the bank’s interest rate challenge, BP and KPMG lined up) will certainly whet students’ appetites ahead of A-level study.

In my experience, international students are highly motivated by undertaking challenging activities that differ from those in class, and jump at the chance to gain professional qualifications early to give them a head start once they leave university and get on the first rung of the jobs ladder. During these activities students often also reveal greater, unexpected abilities that can then be developed further. The result is, I feel, that students become the more well-rounded individuals that it’s increasingly clear universities and employers now seek.”

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