From education to employment

Anticipation and anxiety surround upcoming A Level and GCSE results

Trinh Tu, Managing Director, Ipsos Public Affairs UK&I

The end of August sees the annual tradition of anxious students and their loved ones waiting on the publication of their exam results. This year marks a return to normalcy after pandemic disruptions.

However, uncertainty exists regarding outcomes, particularly in terms of top grades. While many seek university admission, financial concerns and job necessity is leading some students to question its value. It’s clear that further education is at a crossroads, inviting scrutiny and debate over its worth amid ongoing challenges.

This week anticipation and anxiety continue to build in many households across the country – the countdown to A Level and GCSE results is on. Following recent years of pandemic disruption, 2023 represents the start of a new normal, with strong indications that we will be returning to pre-pandemic grading standards in England and fewer numbers of students achieving top grades.

Debating the Value and Funding of University Education

For many students awaiting A-level results, their thoughts will be on whether they’ll secure their university places, though this certainly won’t be the path for everyone next week. According to Ipsos’ research, just over half of parents with children in education say that going to university is worth it (52%). However, with the ongoing cost of living crisis, historically high university fees, and questions around the value of some courses, it is perhaps not surprising that a quarter (25%) of Britons and 20% of parents don’t think it’s worth a young person in their family going to university.

Financial concerns are cited as the key reasons for questioning the value of a university education; high fees, incurred debt and general living expenses are cited as three of the four top reasons. And the perennial issue of tuition fees is unlikely to fade anytime soon, irrespective of the results of the next general election. While abolishing fees altogether (21%) is a preferred option for one in five Britons, other suggestions attract comparative levels of support. For example, similar proportions state a preference for reducing the limit on fees (rather than abolishing completely) or replacing fees with a graduate tax (22% and 19% respectively). Smaller minorities of the public would prefer that that limit on fees should be kept at current levels (11%) or indeed increased (6%).

Perceptions of University Education

Aside from financial concerns, there’s also a belief among some people that a university education is not necessary in order for young people to get a job. In light of the Prime Minister’s recently announced plans to cap the numbers of “rip off” university courses and to focus on outcomes including job prospects, it is telling that the value which the UK public attach to different types of courses varies enormously: over eight in ten Britons (85%) feel it is generally worth a young person going to university to study medicine, sciences, law, dentistry or engineering. In contrast, more people say that it is not worth a young person going to university to study media studies, philosophy, classics or fashion than say it is worth it.

Given this range of views, it is unsurprising that the public is divided over whether we currently have the ‘right number’ of young people going to university. A third of Britons think too many young people go to university (32%), with a similar proportion thinking about the right amount go (29%), whilst another one in five would like to see more (19%). There are notable differences by political persuasion, with those voting Conservative at the last general election far more likely than those who voted Labour to believe that too many young people are going to university.

Challenges and Concerns Surrounding University Costs, Equality, and Public Perceptions

Despite these differences, a concern that the majority of people share is around the impact of costs in discouraging people from poorer backgrounds from attending university (73% expressing concern). Indeed, when asked about the effectiveness of British universities across a range of measures, reducing inequality was rated least well by the public. This is in contrast to producing important research and providing employers with talent, where they are regarded most highly.

Whilst 2023 may see grades return to pre-pandemic levels, the sector is now in a very different place with a greater focus on diversification in student recruitment and delivery, in response to broader economic factors. These pressures will continue to mean more pointed questions around the value of a university education, with greater scrutiny on particular courses and students from different backgrounds. With the general election looming, we can expect further political interest and debate around student outcomes and options, with a keen eye on public opinion.

To all the students awaiting results this week, I wish you all the best!

By Trinh Tu, Managing Director, Ipsos Public Affairs UK&I

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