Student choice should be an opportunity, not a challenge

UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant introduces the findings of a new report exploring students’ views of the choices they made about higher education.

Clare Marchant is chief executive of UCAS.

As higher education opportunity has opened up to greater numbers of people over the decades, student choice has become an essential feature of the system. Yet our latest report shows that choice, without being informed and inspired can, in some cases, be a challenge rather than an opportunity.

Add to the spectacular range of universities, courses, and modes of studying in higher education the range of other routes available, such as apprenticeships, and we can begin to understand just how challenging it is to be a student navigating this journey.

UCAS’ report ‘Where next?’ reveals that one in five students had unknowingly closed the door to studying a subject that interested them at university because they didn’t have the right subjects for entry, and two in five believe more information and advice at school would have led to them making better choices. This means some students weren’t able to follow their ambitions because they didn’t have the right information at the right time to enable them to make the right choices.

The report puts sharply into focus the impact of decisions students make without being able to fully understand the consequences. It makes recommendations for what we, in partnership with primary and secondary schools, and universities, colleges and training providers across the education sector, can do to ensure students are supported to make fully informed choices at every point along their journey. We are not saying students have made wrong or poor choices – but rather that students should be able to make their choices with a full appreciation of the implications.

Early choices

While one in three students start thinking about higher education at primary school, a quarter are not thinking about it until they start their post-16 qualifications, a potential gap of up to ten years in engagement.

Moreover, with disadvantaged students more likely to start later than their peers to think about HE this can limit choice later down the line. Therefore, although progress has been made in widening access and participation over the past few years, it is not only the fallout of the Covid pandemic that threatens to stall efforts in this direction – it is the accessibility, richness, consistency and independence of information, advice and guidance.

It is never too soon to engage young people in thinking about their future. Universities and colleges can work with UCAS and our partners to translate breadth, consistency and independence of information and advice into increasingly effective, deeper outreach work within primary schools and early secondary years, ensuring priority groups are targeted.

We also know that decision-making time frames vary by subject. We have seen the emergence of a pattern showing us that those wishing to study medicine are likely to decide early, and business students decide late. This is, perhaps, unsurprising, with the doctors of tomorrow planning their careers well in advance, but those preparing for less linear careers tending to do so later in their journey. This also reflects the more “fixed” prerequisite qualifications required for medicine, compared to business, where a range of subject qualifications are accepted on entry.

That said, there are exceptions. Economics is a “fixed” subject that requires certain prerequisite qualifications, but typically people do not tend to start thinking about studying economics from a young age. European languages are another example. This mismatch may mean some students are unwittingly blocked from accessing certain subjects

Filling in the gaps

One potential remedy is ensuring that outreach, marketing, and recruitment is focused on those subject areas where this mismatch persists most strongly. Similarly, the earlier students know what is required, the earlier they can make an informed choice about their future – clarity in entry requirements is therefore critical.

But all need not be lost if students take a “wrong” turn earlier in their journey. Developing and promoting less linear pathways into post-secondary education, including higher education bridging provision, foundation year programmes, and higher technical education qualifications has the potential to open more doors for students.

Students are consistently telling us that they want to hear more from universities and colleges when they are thinking about higher education as an option. With two in five students believing that they would have made better choices with more information and advice – of those, 60 per cent said that they wanted this information and advice before GCSEs or National 5, once again reaffirming the importance of early engagement.

We know this also disproportionately affects disadvantaged students, with POLAR4 quintile 1 students, students with a non-degree educated parent or carer and students in non-selective schools more likely to report that improved information and advice would have led them to make better decisions. Efforts must therefore be focused on levelling-up the information and advice landscape for all, to ensure disadvantaged students’ pathways are not limited by a lack of support.

Additionally, almost one in three applicants told us that they received no information about apprenticeships at all, despite 28 per cent of students considering this option when they are applying through UCAS. When asked, 47 per cent of attendees of UCAS events expressed an interest in receiving information about apprenticeships.

Step up support

At UCAS, we take on board the message that we need to create a more cohesive information and advice landscape, visible to all, reflecting all available pathways and reaching those from all backgrounds within the UK nations. Our ambition is to be the destination for all post-secondary education; apprenticeships are not just an add-on, they are fundamental to the delivery of that goal.

As a sector we must cast our nets further afield to ensure that outreach, in its many forms, is effective in engaging those students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are not receiving the same levels of support as those in a more privileged position. We all want students to have equality of opportunity, and we have a role in doing so, with subject specific marketing and recruitment drives, articulating the typical career paths post-graduation to aid decision making.

The development of tools to support further transparency in entry requirements and pathways (inclusive of less traditional, non-linear routes) for students and the staff advising them is also paramount.

We know that early engagement raises aspiration, and that we need to embed more personalised careers advice, information and guidance at the earliest available opportunities in our schools. Efforts must therefore be focused on levelling-up the information and advice landscape for all, to ensure disadvantaged students’ pathways are not limited by a lack of support. Digitisation makes this possible with UCAS leading the way with our Hub on ucas.com, and our partnership with Unibuddy providing that important peer to peer element.

Above all, our concerted efforts across the education sector have the ability to change lives with earlier, more consistent, independent information, advice and guidance – what an opportunity for us all.

This article is published in association with UCAS.

2 responses to “Student choice should be an opportunity, not a challenge

  1. I find myself reflecting on the timing of this publication, on the morning that Uni Connect partnerships (now the biggest provider of university IAG for pre-16 students from low participation backgrounds) are set to receive their indicative (reduced) funding allocation for next year. Evaluation of the programme shows our approach is working, that sustained advice and support throughout high school makes a difference and leads to informed choices, and that starting early is key. And yet even this programme starts at Y9, with many schools now asking students to take their options in Y8.

    National careers advice programmes and networks have been dismantled since 2010. The Careers and Enterprise Company do not provider careers advice in schools, no matter how much certain government ministers might insist they do. 70% of university APP commitments for access are for bursaries and scholarships (do these work to widen access? a separate conversation) and post-16 activities. We are never going to widen access to university and ensure all young people have the same chance to make an informed choice about their post-18 options unless the policy conditions that have bought about all of the above change, and government, universities and schools/colleges are pulling in the same direction and starting early to address this. Allowing Uni Connect to start work in Y8, and ensuring universities dedicate a decent proportion of their APP commitments to pre-16 support rather than recruitment activities dressed up as access would be a good place to start.

  2. Earlier advice is definitely needed. I was an admissions manager for Engineering courses for many years, and a lot of my time was spent advising applicants on the best way to remedy a lack of the required Maths qualifications, but at age 17+ the remedies all involve much additional time and expense. Less restrictive entry requirements could also be part of the solution, but where advanced knowledge in a particular subject is genuinely necessary for a particular degree, and some of the new students do have that knowledge, how do you bring those without up to speed? Foundation years are an expensive remedy that suits some students but not all.

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