Half of state school pupils do not think that they will be better off financially by going to certain universities over others, and teachers in the maintained sector are reluctant to discuss the different status of universities, suggest two new pieces of research commissioned by the Sutton Trust.

A survey of over 3,000 young people by PeopleSurv revealed that 51% of those educated in state schools believed there is no difference in earnings between higher education institutions, compared with 35% from independent schools. Young people from poorer backgrounds were also less likely to recognise differences than their better off peers (68% versus 38%), even though studies show that graduates from universities with higher academic status have significantly higher earnings than those from other universities (see note).

In separate research undertaken by the Institute of Education, researchers found that, even in schools with good track records in admissions to highly-selective universities, the emphasis in briefing sessions was on entry to higher education in general: “Teachers are generally reluctant to draw attention to status differences between universities, and many students appear to have only a vague notion of status.”  The exception to this is Oxford and Cambridge, partly because Oxbridge applicants are openly given extra assistance with applications and preparation for interview.
The Institute of Education study also reported that the children with two graduate parents were much more likely than others to discuss university entry at home and were therefore less reliant on information provided by the school. They also began to think about applying to university much earlier in their school careers.

 Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “The UK’s diverse higher education sector has institutions of many different strengths, and it is right that young people consider a range of factors when making their choices.

But we believe it is important that all young people should be aware of all the relevant information on different courses at different universities.  Pupils should not be disadvantaged in making these decisions by their background or the type of school they happen to attend.  We need to spread best practice on information, advice and guidance on higher education choices from a handful of schools and colleges to the rest of the sector.”

The Institute’s research built on an earlier Sutton Trust report, which showed that there are relatively few comprehensive schools that send significant numbers of students to the most prestigious universities, and those that do so tend to have relatively advantaged students. The new study sought to identify what factors had enabled a few state comprehensives to have relatively high levels of admission to prestigious universities at the same time as having a higher than average proportion of disadvantaged pupils.

Professor Geoff Whitty, a member of the Institute team, said: “Even with similar predicted grades, students from families where neither parent went to university are much less likely to apply to prestigious universities than those with two graduate parents. All students, but first generation students in particular, need earlier information and help from the school if they are to make appropriate choices about which subjects to study and which universities to apply to.


Two forthcoming studies support this:
Wage Returns to Quality of Higher Education Institute Attended by Iftikhar Hussain, Sandra McNally, Shqiponja Telhaj, London School of Economics

This study uses data from a series of Graduate Cohort Studies to assess the wages of graduates four years after leaving university. It uses a range of factors – including research ratings in the Research Assessment Exercise, the retention rate for students, average pre-university test scores in A-levels and other exams – to estimate the status of different universities. The calculations control for range of individual characteristics of students including A-level points score, subject of degree, gender, age, type of school attended, ethnicity and parental education. It concludes that the wage returns for graduates from a top-ranked institution using these measures are over twice as high as the returns for graduates from an institution ranked much more lowly. The study also suggests that these differences in returns may be increasing over time.

Graduating and gradations within the middle class: the legacy of an elite higher education by Sally Power, Cardiff University and Geoff Whitty, Institute of Education

This study surveys the outcomes of a small cohort of graduates who left university in the mid-1990s. It creates a ranking of elite universities from various published ‘performance’ tables. These include Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Imperial, King’s College, London, London School of Economics, Oxford, St Andrews, University College London. It finds that nearly one fifth (19%) of those who went to elite universities were earning over £90,000 per annum – compared with only 8% and 5% of those who went to other ‘old’ and ‘new’ universities respectively. 33% of the graduates from elite universities now own their home outright, compared with 21% of graduates from other universities and 13% of non-graduates.

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