Very much like his headmaster, head of careers David Hawkins is eloquent, confident, focused, international in his outlook. His job is to find the best FE placements for Taunton’s pupils. And his message is clear: UK universities need to up their game if they are to compete in a world market.
DH: We’re trying to offer 21st-century careers guidance on an international model – which is very different from the traditional British way of doing it, whereby university fees are set, they will offer fantastic products, and the students will always come. That’s not the world our students are in any more, and by using international links with universities – in the US predominantly, but Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and parts of Europe – by getting them to come in, we’re putting pressure on British universities to make them improve what they do.
Over the course of the autumn term nearly 70 universities came into the school and they’re not sitting in our theatre, they’re in the careers room talking to anywhere from two to 20 students for half an hour while students have their lunch. They talk to them individually, they give little presentations – and because we’ve had so many international universities coming through, we can say to Surrey and Sussex: “You need to do the same as well. If you don’t, you’re going to lose out on our students, because if a university’s flying in from Japan or Otago in New Zealand to speak to students, why aren’t you coming over to speak to students?”
IET: Is this trend on the increase?
DH: Yes, it’s increasing. It’s all because of the number controls situation – the government funding has changed, universities can now compete for students. So they’re having to recruit, and there’s now a market for these types of students. And if they don’t, then they will lose out.
Our students are international consumers of education. If a university wants them, and there are scholarships and funding available, then they’ll go. They’ve chosen Taunton School from a multitude of opportunities, and they’re doing the same with universities. We had a girl last year who held university offers from five different countries – and they were five very unique institutions which offered her what she wanted, so she applied to them all and got offers from them. Students shouldn’t feel they have to default into an option. Five years ago, maybe three years ago, the students would be told, “Here’s what universities are offering. How do you fit into that?” Now they can say, “This is what I want to do, I want to learn in a very practical sense.”
IET: Are you getting any resistance from the more traditional British universities?
DH: Yes, some of them quite openly say they don’t have the resources to do it, but we’re now getting offers – in the last two weeks we’ve had both St. Andrews and Lampeter saying they’d like to come. Which is interesting – completely unprompted from us. Students should feel the university wants them, not that the university is doing them a favour by taking them
IET: What difference has the tuition fees increase made?
DH: The £9,000 has changed the game. Now the debate is, is £9,000 worth what the university offers? In a lot of cases, it’s not. As the vice chancellor of Oxford said recently, he thinks a lot of universities are making a profit on £9,000 from an undergraduate. If you are a middle-ranking student here, is getting a 2:1 from a middle-ranking or lower-ranking university going to change your life? It probably won’t make any difference.
IET: Would you say that to Taunton pupils and their parents?
DH: We do quite a lot… This is a school where a lot of the parents are first-time buyers. We’re not a school where you come here because your great-great-great-grandfather also came here. There’s a lot of people that are making a huge sacrifice to send their children here because they’re convinced by what it means, and they look at university and think, “Well, that’s not doing the same.”
They invest in a school like this because of the small class sizes and the dedicated staff and the attention to detail and the school ethos. And you go to British university, and where is any of that? So then they look to a programme where you might do a higher apprenticeship, and you’re in college for three days, and you work in a factory for two days – there is that kind of thing if you look at the Netherlands or Switzerland.
Or they look at different types of courses – you can go and do a HND and do a one-year course and go on from there. Or you go and do something completely different – perhaps a City and Guilds. And that’s the way it should be. For us, it’s finding that fit for every student.
The other side of this is trying to give the students a longer-term view of what it’s like in a working environment. We invite in local employers to come and give talks. Sassi Holford, the fashion designer who’s based in Taunton, is a recent example. Or the Chiltern College of childcare – what’s it like to be a nanny? How might that suit?
IE: Do you have any organised work experience programmes?
DH: Those kinds of work experience weeks are dying out because of the insurance implications, and we have the complication that because a lot of students hold tier four visas, they’re not allowed to work. But we do encourage all the lower sixth students to do some form of work experience in their holiday and we have all sort of programmes and opportunities, but it depends on what you want to do really. Obviously for vocational things like medicine or engineering, it’s hugely important, but if you’re going to read French or history at university, then actually spending that time reading is more important. It’s all individualised.