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.

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%).

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

“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.”


  • The Sutton Trust is committed to improving social mobility from birth to the workplace. Founded by Sir Peter Lampl in 1997, the Trust has supported over 30,000 young people through evidence-led programmes and published over 200 pieces of agenda-setting research, many of which have influenced government policy.
  • The full polling is available here.
  • 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.
  • 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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