KNOWING THE RIGHT PEOPLE MORE IMPORTANT FOR GETTING ON IN LIFE THAN A UNIVERSITY DEGREE, ACCORDING TO YOUNG PEOPLE

As thousands of students receive their A Level results across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it’s time the Government ensured that the university admissions process is as fair and transparent as possible to safeguard the integrity of the higher education system.

The current system of predicted grades and unconditional offers is at risk of undermining the process of university admissions and putting undue pressure to pupils.

Young people think that knowing the right people and being confident are more important for getting on in life than going to university, according to new Ipsos MORI polling published by the Sutton Trust on A-level results day (today).

Out of more than 2,000 11 – 16-year olds surveyed this year, almost nine out of 10 (85%) said it’s important to be confident to do well and get on in life. Three quarters felt that having connections was crucial, with 75% saying that ‘knowing the right people’ is important for success in life.

However, just under two-thirds (65%) said they think it’s important to go to university. This has fallen from a high of 86% in 2013, with the proportion who feel that going to university is not important rising from 11% in 2013 to 20% in 2019.

The polling highlights how perceptions of the importance of university differ by social and ethnic background. University was deemed less important for young people from the least affluent families (61% compared with 67% in ‘high affluence’ households), and white pupils (62% compared with 75% of young people from a BME background).

The decline in young people’s perception of the importance of university may in part be down to a growing awareness of apprenticeships and other high-quality training routes. Almost two-thirds (64%) of young people said they’d be interested in doing an apprenticeship rather than going to university, if one was available for a job they wanted to do.

Despite this, three-quarters (77%) of young people think they’re likely to go on to higher education after school. This is a similar rate to the past few years, but slightly below the high of 81% in 2013. University aspirations also differ by social background. In 2019, 67% of pupils from the least affluent families thought they were likely to go into higher education, compared to 83% in ‘high affluence’ households.

Of the young people who said it was unlikely they would go into higher education, the most common set of reasons – given by 62% of those across England and Wales who are unlikely to attend – was they don’t like the idea or don’t enjoy learning or studying. 43% cited a financial reason, while 41% said that they weren’t clever enough or wouldn’t get good enough exam results to get in.

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Today’s polling also finds a small decline in doubts about the cost of going to university. Two-fifths (40%) of young people who are likely to go to university or who aren’t sure either way yet, are worried about the cost of higher education, down from 46% in 2018. However, money worries continue to be pronounced for young people from the least affluent families (50% compared with 32% in ‘high affluence’ households) and for girls over boys (44% vs 36%).

KEY FINDINGS

 
  • Almost nine out of 10 (85%) said it’s important to be confident to do well and get on in life. Three quarters felt that having connections was crucial, with 75% saying that ‘knowing the right people’ is important for success in life.
  • However, just under two-thirds (65%) said they think it’s important to go to university. This has fallen from a high of 86% in 2013, with the proportion who feel that going to university is not important rising from 11% in 2013 to 20% in 2019.
  • University was deemed less important for young people from the least affluent families (61% compared with 67% in ‘high affluence’ households), and white pupils (62% compared with 75% of young people from a BME background).
  • Almost two-thirds (64%) of young people said they’d be interested in doing an apprenticeship rather than going to university, if one was available for a job they wanted to do.
  • Three-quarters (77%) of young people think they’re likely to go on to higher education after school. This is a similar rate to the past few years, but slightly below the high of 81% in 2013. University aspirations also differ by social background. In 2019, 67% of pupils from the least affluent families thought they were likely to go into higher education, compared to 83% in ‘high affluence’ households.
  • Of the young people who said it was unlikely they would go into higher education, the most common set of reasons (62%) was they don’t like the idea or don’t enjoy learning or studying. 43% cited a financial reason, while 41% said that they weren’t clever enough or wouldn’t get good enough exam results to get in.
  • Two-fifths (40%) of young people who are likely to go to university or who aren’t sure either way yet, are worried about the cost of higher education, down from 46% in 2018. However, money worries continue to be pronounced for young people from the least affluent families (50% compared with 32% in ‘high affluence’ households) and for girls over boys (44% vs 36%).

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. All pupils should receive a guaranteed level of careers advice from professional impartial advisers, to help them make an informed decision about their next steps.
  2. Maintenance grants, abolished in 2016, should be restored, providing support for those who need it most and reducing the debt burden of the least well-off, so that they graduate with lower debt than those from better-off backgrounds.
  3. The government should introduce a system of means-tested fees which waives fees entirely for those from low income backgrounds, and increases in steps for those from higher income households.
  4. There should be more higher and degree apprenticeships, targeted at younger age groups, to give young people a platform for progression to higher level learning and careers, including through university.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said:

“It’s no surprise that young people have doubts about the importance of higher education. Young people face a dilemma. If they go on to university, they incur debts of over £50,000 and will be paying back their loans well into middle age. And in many cases they will end up with degrees that don’t get them into graduate jobs.

“Young people need better advice and guidance on where different degrees and apprenticeships could lead them, so they can make the right decision regarding their future.”

Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) National Chairman Mike Cherry said:

“This is a crucial time for all students as they make their next steps to higher education which is why the process of university admissions need to serve pupils in the best way possible.

“It’s vital that the admissions system works in the interests of pupils in what is a challenging educational environment.

“The last administration announced that a full review was needed to put an end to some practices which undermined the credibility of the university admissions process.

“First of all, the current system of predicted grades are not sufficiently accurate and should not be used for admissions. Secondly, the use of unconditional offers harms students’ grades and traps them from exploring other options.

“This practice is suitable to only some pupils and universities but not for all. In 2013, only 1.1% of pupils received an unconditional offer, compared to 2018 where a staggering 34.4% did so.

“Gavin Williamson and Jo Johnson must pick up where Damian Hinds left off to create a fair system which doesn’t pressurise pupils into making a decision that can lead to under achievement in exams and have a major impact on their educational and working lives.

“We need this review to uphold the integrity of the higher education system as well as ensuring pupils are able to get the most out of their education.

“And to all pupils, congratulations and well done with your results.”

Gordon Marsden MP, Labour’s Shadow Higher Education Minister, said:

“These figures show how badly this government has failed young people. As a result, more students are expressing doubts about higher education.

“Young people are paying the price for a system that burdens them with debt, and doesn’t provide the guidance and support they need.

“We need to support young people. That’s why Labour will restore EMA, and scrap fees for college and university.

“We’ll also scrap university offers based on predicted grades and implement a new fairer system of post-qualification admissions.”

About the research: Ipsos MORI interviewed 2,809 school children aged 11-16 in secondary schools (excluding special schools, fee-paying schools and sixth form college) in England and Wales. Pupils were selected from a random sample of schools, and self-completion questionnaires were completed online between February and May 2019. Data are weighted by school year, gender and region to match the profile of school children across England and Wales. The Trust has monitored this trend since 2003 as an indicator of young people’s expectations before they do their GCSEs.

Pupils were grouped into high, medium or low family affluence scores based on their answers to six questions in the survey relating to the number of times they had been on holiday with their family in the last year, whether they have their own bedroom, the number of computers owned by their family, the number of cars, vans or trucks owned by their family, whether they have a dishwasher at home, and the number of bathrooms in their home. This categorisation is taken from the World Health Organisation’s Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children study.

Disadvantaged pupils are those who are eligible for Free School Meals.

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