This morning sees young people across England and Wales receiving their A level results. Many will be hoping they get the grades they need for their chosen university course, but a substantial proportion will be looking elsewhere for their next steps. For increasing numbers of young people, the grades they receive today won’t even matter, thanks to the dramatic rise in unconditional offers made by universities. However, despite the relentless media focus on university, just one third of 18 year olds will enter higher education after leaving school, rising to almost half by the age of 30; and stubborn inequalities remain between social groups in their paths through the education system.
Since 2003 the Sutton Trust has been tracking the expectations of university attendance among young people aged 11-16 in schools in England and Wales, and has consistently shown that these inequalities emerge even before pupils have done their GCSEs.
In 2018, 77% of young people overall saw themselves as likely to attend higher education when they are old enough, consistent with the last four years. However, even at a young age, those from less well-off backgrounds are less likely to see themselves attending university. 67% of those on free school meals see themselves as likely, compared to 79% of non-disadvantaged pupils, or 81% of those in the most affluent homes. Boys are also less likely to expect to attend higher education, at 73% compared to 81% for girls. There were also differences by ethnicity, with 75% of white pupils intending to attend university, compared to 85% of black and 81% of Asian pupils. Many of these gaps only widen by the time final decisions are actually made at 18.
Beneath the headline figures, there lurk some interesting trends. The proportion of those saying they are ‘very likely’ to attend higher education (a figure closer to the eventual proportion at 18), has declined steadily since 2009. From a high of 41% in 2009, it is down by almost a quarter, to 32% today. The reasons for this could be manifold. The pattern of data in our surveys shows that the trebling of fees in 2012 has had an enduring negative impact on the perceptions of university among young people in schools.
While the lifting of the cap in student numbers has meant increasing numbers attending university, there are clear indications of increased trepidation among young people. Almost half (46%) of those planning to attend university have worries about the financial consequences, including the cost of fees, the prospects of paying back debt for 30 years, and the cost of living as a student. With the government’s Review of Post-18 Education well underway, it is welcome to see the increasing consensus urging the reintroduction of maintenance grants.
Alongside this, the proportion of young people who say that going to university is important to get on in life has also fallen consistently in recent years, from a high of 86% in 2013, down to 75% this year. While higher education remains the surest route to a successful career, university is not necessarily the best option for everyone. Of those not planning to attend university, 58% cite not enjoying that type of learning. Interest among young people in completing an apprenticeship has risen substantially over the last four years, from 55% to 64%. However, the number of degree and higher level apprenticeships available to young people remain disappointingly low, despite the introduction of the Apprenticeships Levy and the ambitious government target of 3 million new apprenticeships.
For perceptions of university as the ‘default route’ to change, we need to see both an increase in high quality alternatives in the form of apprenticeships and vocational education, but also a change in mindset to give parity of esteem to these routes. Just 21% of teachers would ‘always’ or ‘usually’ advise a high performing student to opt for an apprenticeship over university. As many teachers have direct experience of higher education, but not of apprenticeships, there needs to be better careers advice in schools covering all of the options available to young people.
If we are to give you all young people the best chance for success, we need a dual-track approach that makes sure to reduce the barriers to university for students from all backgrounds, but also to overhaul the quality and perception of routes for those who go a different way.
This blog was also published on WonkHe.