Extensive new research shows the public feel positively towards UK universities by five-to-one – and people overwhelmingly say they would send their children to university given the chance.

This BritainThinks poll for Universities UK, part of detailed research produced on public perceptions of higher education, shows that, contrary to much of the political and media commentary, undergraduates and recent graduates display positive feelings towards UK universities – as do UK adults from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.

The poll of 2,063 UK adults showed just 9% of the public feel negative towards universities, with 48% saying they feel positive (with 31% saying they were neutral and 13% saying “don’t know”). Furthermore 66% of people agreed with the statement that they would encourage their children to attend university.

However, there were other positive markers of public opinion too:

  • 58% of people believe that universities have a positive impact on the UK (only 4% disagree)
  • 55% of people agree that people who go to university can get better jobs than those that don’t (34% disagree)
  • 70% of people agree that UK universities are among the best in the world (only 11% disagree).

Although 48% the public overall feel positive towards universities, and only 9% negative, young people are more positive than older people:

  • 55% of 18-24 year olds and 44% of 25-34 year olds say universities have had a positive impact on them personally, compared to 35% of people aged 65+
  • 34% of 18-24 year olds say universities have had a positive impact on their local community, compared to 26% of those aged 65+
  • Young people are much more likely to disagree with the statement “university degrees do not equip graduates with the skills they need to be successful in the workplace” (35% of 18-24 year olds disagree, compared to 24% of those aged 65+).

Over the last 18 months, there has been significant media coverage about university access and attainment, particularly for ethnic minorities. This debate has raised valid questions that the sector must deal with, and UUK is working together with the NUS to help universities tackle the gap in BAME students’ achievements at university.

But this poll also reveals that BAME communities have retained confidence in the university sector.

  • BAME adults are much more likely to say that universities have a positive impact on their family than white adults (60% compared to 43%)
  • BAME adults are more likely to say that universities have a positive impact on the UK as a whole than white people (68% compared to 57%)

Professor Dame Janet Beer, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, said: “There is a myth that the public are sceptical about the merits of universities – and that an increasingly large number of young people think higher education is a waste of time. In fact, as this research shows, the opposite is true. The public are hugely positive towards universities and see the benefits of a university education. Crucially, this is most true of those with direct experience of university – existing students and recent graduates. That is one of the reasons why demand for university places has remained high despite there being fewer 18-year-olds in the population.

“Politicians need to work with the higher education sector to extend the number of people accessing universities and to give more support for flexible learning, promoting pride in what is a world-class sector, rather than creating new obstacles.”

Viki Cooke, Founding Partner, BritainThinks, said: “BritainThinks is delighted to have worked with Universities UK to understand current public attitudes towards universities. In spite of a wave of negative media coverage, the public is positive and proud of the sector, recognising its importance and contributions to individuals, local communities and the nation. Crucially, in times of uncertainty, the public is keen to hear more about the sector’s achievements.”

BritainThinks polled 2,063 UK adults online between 30 May and 31 May 2018. Data were weighted to be representative of all UK adults.

University and student leaders launched a major drive to improve the attainment and university experience of black and minority ethnic students across the UK on 6 June 2018.

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