Where next for understanding applicant choices?

There’s a secret code to higher education applications.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

There’s a secret code to higher education applications.

Click on an institutional website, or search UCAS, and providers are falling over themselves to tell you what grades you need to successfully apply to a course. Some courses, be they heavily specialised, popular, or some combination of the two have particular A level requirements.

STEM subjects, for instance, generally require STEM A levels or Highers. Creative Arts courses generally want to see a portfolio of previous work, and a creative level 3 qualification is a great way to build them up. Economists generally need more than a smattering of mathematics. Linguists need that prior language knowledge – and A levels or Highers are the recognised way to get it.

If you work in the sector you see no problems with the above paragraph – it is simply the natural order of things. But if you are coming from outside the usual pool of students this knowledge is non-trivial and potentially career defining.

It is this social and cultural gap that is the topic of today’s report by UCAS, “Where Next?”. We learn that prospective students from disadvantaged backgrounds make decisions about HE later, which can limit available routes. We learn that subject is kind, and that students overwhelmingly choose subjects they love (though there is some evidence that Covid-19 has put a stronger emphasis on employment prospects). The call is for earlier and more detailed advice – broad and personalised careers information, advice, and guidance.

As such, it is tempting for higher education providers to write this issue off as a matter for schools, or for UCAS. But there are a number of key points for providers to consider:

  • Are entry requirements clear, and do they take current L3 choices into account?
  • Is there space for less linear pathways, like foundation years and other bridging provision?
  • Is marketing and recruitment getting to students beyond the ones that would apply anyway? Early enough? For all subjects?

Facilitation breakdown

The old Russell Group “facilitating subjects” cast a long shadow over this debate. Long since abandoned in favour of the more inclusive informed choices tool, the older (2010) booklet was a fixture in many ambitious schools’ careers library. The A levels that more selective universities deemed “acceptable” shaped the post-16 experiences of many young people – often to the detriment of their own preferences.

It’s no longer the case that certain qualifications effectively bar you from certain universities, but it is the case that some popular courses make a lot of assumptions about what a standard applicant background might be. It’s still true that around 90 per cent 18 year old applicants with A level are accepted in a normal year – BTEC only applications are not far behind now (87 per cent) but this has risen from just 76 per cent a decade ago.

This data is from the UCAS EOS dashboard, and highlights a weakness of this report. There was the opportunity to share and use a lot more data to highlight the way qualification choices (and even subject choices) have an impact on acceptance for different subjects or even different providers. There is a look at entry qualifications by subject in the weighting tables for the HESA Widening Participation PI, but this is just on students who enter, not all students who apply.

UCAS provides data on providers by qualification group, which I’ve plotted for you here, showing acceptance rates (main stream acceptances/ main stream applications).


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But that’s just a hint of the richness of the data UCAS holds here. We get a few more hints of the rest in the report.

How to choose

I’m often bewildered by the speculation on how students make their choice of course and provider. There’s surely enough surveys now that we know that they speak to friends, teachers, and staff and students on open days. To those truisms we can now add that students choose subjects they enjoy studying – 74 per cent of 18 and 19 year old 2021 applicants cited this commonly. Career and job prospects were cited by about half of the most disadvantaged applicants and about ⅖ of the least disadvantaged applicants.

There is a difference by subject – prospective maths students choose the subject they feel they are best at, literature and history/philosophy applicants to 90 per cent on choosing a subject they enjoy, medics are most concerned with specific careers and mathematicians with careers in the abstract.

Parents have significant but small impact on subject choice – one in four cite parents as the biggest help, but just 6 per cent choose a subject at their parents’ behest. Fifty five percent have graduate parents.

Pre-16 choices

Again as you might expect, enjoyment and future careers are primary reasons for a choice in BTECs, A levels, or Highers (it would have been nice to see data beyond high, medium, and low here. UCAS introduces the idea of fixed and fluid degree subjects – the former seeing a largely homogenous level 3 background in applicants, the latter seeing applicants with a wider range of backgrounds.

A separate table gives examples: Medicine (biology, chemistry), Maths (maths), Economics (maths or economics) and European languages (French, Spanish, or German) are very fixed – whereas Education, Business, and Law are very fluid. Engineering, Nursing, Sport, and Computer Science sit somewhere in the middle.

The report argues that some students, especially those who consider university after making L3 choices, may be unwittingly blocked from certain subjects because of these patterns. It’s presented as an information deficit, but could equally be seen as a lack of imagination and flexibility. There are some examples of foundation courses or other additional years, but these are not always available for the most selective courses. Simply put this may mean people who could be well suited to medicine are missing out because the system expects them to know this at 16 and make A level choices accordingly.

In particular, BTECs are seen as choices that narrow subject options in higher education – a situation that disproportionately affects disadvantaged applicants (who tend to choose BTECS). It is, of course, unknown how T-levels will play into this issue. The limiting effect is most pronounced at level 3, but of course L2 choices can affect this. Is it really necessary for 13 year olds to know what career they want?

Career opportunities

The report pushes the importance of the right careers advice and guidance at earlier stages. Young people could be making much more informed choices had careers services not been almost lost entirely since 2010 – the service is coming back into fashion now but a lot of knowledge and expertise has been lost.

With the advent of PQA and a less nuanced system of application, these choices will become ever more important. An applicant with three science A levels will struggle to parley a love of literature into a place to read English, and the country will be all the poorer for it. Better off students do get better careers advice, but there is a lot more to be done.

THe report tails off into employment data towards the end, but it does not make a telling international comparison. Nowhere else in the world are young people required to make choices at age 13 that determine their future career. UK education is famed for early specialisation, a practice favoured by traditionalist commentators but arguably of some detriment to the life courses of young people. Peers in the US decide on medicine much later, and it is difficult to suggest that doctors and surgeons are less talented or effective for it.

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