Is university choice really all about the money? The UUK/ComRes student poll

Though the government is keen to present us with historic salary data as evidence for the value of HE courses, it appears that prospective and recent students don’t see that as useful.

Ahead of the Universities UK annual conference (and the launch of the new Discover Uni prospective student information service), a survey covering the reasons why people choose to study at university and what information they wish they’d had feels like a good idea. And that’s exactly what we have – complete with full data tables from ComRes. The polling company interviewed 767 undergraduate students, and 1,513 recent (last 5-10 years) graduates over the back end of August.

The headline is that around a third of the combined sample see the chance of a higher salary as their motivation for university study. Key reasons include an interest in the subject of their course, a general enjoyment in studying and learning, and as a first step towards a career. However, when graduates were asked about what information they would have liked to have known before applying to their course better career information to inform subject choice topped the ranking, with career experiences of recent graduates coming in second, and information on the cost of living while studying in third place.

Which of the following, if any, are reasons that you decided to go to university?

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For individual questions we get data split by age, subject of degree-level study, region, sex, and – for recent graduates only – salary and employment status. The “age” split is less useful as it covers both current students and recent graduates – the ages of current students are likely to skew low, and those 5-10 years out from graduation will skew high.

What I spotted here is that those who studied or are studying humanities are more likely to indicate that a higher salary was a factor than those from any other subject area other than (non health sciences) STEM. Creative arts students appear not to see salary as a priority – suggesting that some of the main LEO messaging that aims to warn students that creative arts doesn’t lead to high pay may be misplaced.

We also learn that those from the East Midlands are more likely to cite a need to have more independence as a reason for higher study than anywhere else in the UK – with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland scoring lowest on this measure. However if the proposition is put slightly differently those from the Eastern region are more likely to say that they wanted to experience living independently or in a different location.

Thinking about the university experience

This section takes another angle on reasons for study, and looks across the entire sample without splits

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An astonishing 84 per cent of those surveys agreed with the statement “my potential salary wasn’t the only factor I considered when deciding to go to university”, and the same percentage would recommend university to others “as a worthwhile experience”. Eighty-three percent felt that university helped to develop skills in the workplace, and the same percentage felt that university helps develop “life skills” and supports them in reaching their potential.

For all the concerns about a poor quality experience for students, this is a good report for the sector. It would be fascinating to know what kind of providers are covered by this sample – table 52 promises this but it is omitted from the published data. I understand that this may be for sound reasons, but – at least – a split by mission group or age of provider might have shed some light here.

The top three most important things you wish you had known before applying to university


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This was a fascinating question – and one that is bound to make an impression at DfE. Overall, students would have been grateful for careers information – a notoriously underfunded function in schools and colleges. This careers information would have been focused on subject rather than provider choice, and cover graduate experiences (not just salary) in a chosen field. Immediate money worries follow closely, with cost of living slightly edging out how the loan system works when you look at all top three placings. If you look at the most important pieces of information, cost of living and the loan system sit just behind subject focused career information.

We do also get the splits for this question.

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Languages students are keenest on career information to help subject choice (54 percent put this in their top three), whereas creative arts students (32 percent) and STEM students (31%) are the most interested in provider focused careers advice. Those in the South West (41 per cent) and Yorkshire (40 percent) are most interested in living costs.

Those recent graduates earning more than £70,000 would have been happiest to see careers information to help with their choice of institution (41%), though those earning less than £20,000 a year would have liked to have seen careers information on choice of subject (46 per cent).

Concluding thoughts

A lot of what we discover here backs up the findings of the OfS student panel research – demonstrating that information on the immediate financial impact, and an understanding of the loan system, is crucially important to any sector-wide information offer. It also seems that the lure of LEO salary data is being overstated, as we’ve consistently said at Wonkhe.

Whether the new (beta) Discover Uni service will take these findings into account remains to be seen. Currently there is an information asymmetry in the system – those from backgrounds with experience of university are more likely to understand living costs and finance, and what is available currently does little to address this.

But the big take-away has to be the need for proper careers support for school leavers. The offer has been allowed to wither on the vine for too long – it is clearly time for action, and perhaps universities themselves have a bigger role to play.

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