The proportion of young people who think it’s important to go to university when they are old enough has fallen steadily over the past six years, according to new Ipsos MORI polling of young people published by the Sutton Trust on A-level results day (today).

Three-quarters (75%) of the 2,381 11 – 16 year olds surveyed this year think it’s important to go to university to do well and get on in life, down from a high of 86% in 2013 and 78% in 2017. A similar proportion felt that having connections was crucial, with 77% saying that ‘knowing the right people’ was important for success in life.

Despite this, 77% think they’re likely to go on to university after school. Less than a third (32%) of the young people polled said that they were ‘very likely’ to go into higher education, down from a high of 41% in 2009), while 45% said it was ‘fairly likely’ they would do so.

The polling highlights how university aspirations differ by gender and by social background. Disadvantaged pupils are less like likely than their peers to believe that they’re likely to go into higher education (67% vs 79%) while girls are more likely than boys to expect to enter higher education (81% vs 73%).

In reality, a third of 18 and 19 year-olds will go on to Higher Education in England and Wales, whilst 49% of young adults do so by the age of 30. But this aspirations barometer, monitored by the Sutton Trust since 2003, is an important indicator of 11-16 year olds expectations of going to university.

Today’s polling also finds that nearly half (46%) of young people who are likely to go to university are worried about the cost of higher education. Money worries are particularly pronounced for young people from the least affluent families (58% compared with 41% in ‘high affluence’ households), and those in single parent households (52% compared with 44% for two-parent households).

Among pupils who are likely to go into higher education, or aren’t sure either way yet, and are worried about the cost of higher education, the most common financial worry is about tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year (38%). Having to repay student loans for up to 30 years is the second most common concern at 24%, while 16% cited the cost of living as a student.

Of all the young people who said it was unlikely they would go into higher education, the most common set of reasons – given by over half (58%) of those across England and Wales who are unlikely to attend – was they don’t like the idea / don’t enjoy learning or studying. 44% cited a financial reason, while 35% don’t think they need to go to university to get the job they’d like. Recent Sutton Trust polling has highlighted increased interest among young people in undertaking an apprenticeship, at 64%, up from 55% in 2014.

To make sure that the cost of going to university is not a barrier to anyone, the Sutton Trust is calling on the Government to restore maintenance grants and review the case for means-testing tuition fees, ensuring that the cost of university reflects the financial circumstances of young people.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today:

“It’s no surprise that there has been a fall in the proportion of young people who think it’s important to go into 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 a number of cases they end up with degrees that don’t get them into graduate jobs. On the other hand, degree-level apprenticeships are almost non-existent with less than 10,000 available each year compared with over 300,000 university places. There is effectively no viable alternative to university.”

“That is why the Sutton Trust has mounted a campaign to dramatically increase the number of degree-level apprenticeships by working with government, for-profit and not-for profit organisations and universities.”


  • The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 200 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  • The full polling will be available here.
  • Ipsos MORI interviewed 2,381 school children aged 11-16 in schools in England and Wales. Pupils were selected from a random sample of schools, and self-completion questionnaires were completed at school and online between February and May 2018. Data are weighted by school year, gender and region to match the profile of school children across England and Wales.
  • Pupils were grouped into high, medium or low family affluence scores based on their answers to four 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, and the number of cars, vans or trucks owned by their family. 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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