Higher education is often described as ‘an investment in your future’: a route to higher earnings, greater life satisfaction and even better health. It’s a slightly dubious metaphor in my view as the benefits of higher education are not solely financial, and what’s more, young people don’t think of it in this narrow transactional way.
A recent study by NEON and Universities UK found that prospective students’ main question to friends already at university was what the university experience was like and day-to-day living expenses, rather than, say, interest rates on loan repayments. In work with A-level students by the Behavioural Insights Team, undergraduates gave a talk focusing on university as a social experience. This increased the proportion of students interested in university, whereas information about the costs and benefits reduced it.
Just minimising the risk?
But, taking its limitations into account, let’s continue with the metaphor of investment. Effective investment requires good quality information, advice and guidance to minimise the risk of the decision, and to maximise the chance of longer-term rewards. As Sir John Holman has recently noted, careers guidance is the key to social mobility. But – 20 years since tuition fees were introduced – we remain a long way from having effective information, advice and guidance (IAG) for students. In an era when all the main political parties claim to be committed to social mobility, this is unacceptable.
There’s no shortage of information out there of course, and this is part of the problem. As last month’s Public Accounts Committee report ‘The Higher Education Market’ pointed out, young people are hindered rather than helped in their decisions about whether, where and what to study by the sheer volume of information they’re exposed to. Much of which, whether it’s league tables, university websites or journalists fulminating about fees in the media, isn’t as impartial or informed as it needs to be for young people making one of the most important choices of their life.
Indeed, current government policy, from TEF ratings to the recent addition to Unistats of average earnings per course at different insitutions calculated using LEO data intended to prove ‘value for money’, may end up adding to this cognitive burden.
A positive offer
Even if we get to a point where we have good quality and streamlined information provided in a way that can be easily interpreted, this still will not be enough. In addition to raw information, what young people require is personalised support to help them understand and apply it to their own situation.
Put simply, many students today have far too much I(nformation) and nowhere near enough A(dvice) and G(uidance).
Some young people with a family history of higher education already have people they can call on to steer them towards the most suitable courses. Such role models typically embody both the short and long-term benefits of higher education in a way cold facts and figures cannot. Talking to your mum’s lawyer friend is likely to be far more inspiring than scrolling through LEO data, visiting your older brother in halls far more persuasive than the institution’s TEF rating.
Schools careers services are a crucial source of support. But these are not consistently available for young people, and have suffered from myopic funding cuts since 2010. Where high quality advice is are available, it tends to be for more affluent students. Analysis by Careers and Enterprise Company shows that schools achieving the highest number of the Gatsby benchmarks for good careers advice are normally those already rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, which have fewer free school meals pupils than those with lower ratings. There are also regional variations, with schools in the prosperous South East more likely to provide good advice than those in the North East.
Advice as social mobility
So, predictably and depressingly, poorer students in areas with fewer opportunities who most need this high quality careers advice are the ones least likely to receive it.
The current patchy network of IAG is therefore exacerbating inequality, and a social mobility policy priority must therefore be to meet the needs of students lacking IAG, and who do not have straightforward access to social networks for advice.
Embracing technology is a tried and tested way of providing high-quality IAG to students, regardless of where they live. My organisation Brightside connects students with mentors online to help them make confident and informed decisions about education and careers. Our online model matches students with dedicated volunteers across geographical and social divides they might otherwise never meet, and are introduced to careers and opportunities they might otherwise never know about. Working with 10,000 students each year in every part of the country, Brightside currently has projects where white working class boys in Cumbria are communicating with business executives in London, and sixth form students in Essex communicate with medical students in Hull.
The personalised nature of the support makes the big difference to the confidence and knowledge these young people need. Students are engaging with mentors who not only understand the student finance system and admissions process, but also know what it’s like to be a young person worrying if they’re going to be able to make friends. 88% of mentees on a recent project with the GM Higher NCOP consortium said mentoring had given them a better understanding of what the university experience was like. And as research by HEPI shows, having realistic expectations about university is crucial to making the most of it – ‘people who expect a different student experience to the one they get are less satisfied, learn less and say they are getting less good value for money.’
We are pleased to see that the Office for Students has identified IAG as a priority, and will be publishing a strategy later this year. Given its crucial role in social mobility, we will be looking for an ambitious, long-term approach which aligns closely with the Department for Education careers and social mobility strategies.
I see no reason why any student from any background should miss out on the sustained one-to-one careers and higher education advice they need. In the digital age, technology can dramatically expand young people’s access to new and diverse relationships with adults and peers across the country and beyond. These new relationships can provide access to the same sort of opportunities and networks already open to more privileged students and – crucially – expand their sense of what is possible.
There will be some modest short-term cost associated with the introduction of a comprehensive IAG approach which can genuinely improve social mobility across the country. But – as young people are continually being told when it comes to tuition fees – it’s important to focus on the long-term benefits of any investment too.