What does it mean to be one of the Million? The student perspective

Melody Stephen, Law with International Studies student at the University of Manchester 

If I could give my younger self some advice as she considered her higher education choices, that advice would be to own your decision, as ultimately, it is your decision to make.  

As I think back to my time as an applicant, and what the world might be like for future students, I do so as a fourth year Law student at the University of Manchester, with every intention of progressing to study further. My journey hasn’t been the typical one, and whilst many of the challenges I have faced as I progressed are common, some have been unique.  

At this point it seems natural for me to use this opportunity to reflect on my experiences of university, and to think what can be done to support young people going into higher education (HE) and apprenticeships, as we see more and more students take that next step. While the context of this new cohort will be different to mine, with increased demand for places and a greater reform of student services and accommodation required , I think there are some key messages which the sector can take forward. 

You don’t know what you don’t know

Knowledge of all available pathways is needed to empower students to make the decision that’s right for them. Arriving in the UK from Nigeria in Year 3, myself and my family were not aware of the support and awareness to understand how the education system I was enrolled in worked — we didn’t know what we didn’t know.  

This situation was exacerbated by unequal access to careers information, advice and guidance (CIAG). Talking to peers in my community, I know that some schools and colleges felt comfortable supporting students across a range of pathways, but others lacked the knowledge and resources to do so effectively or held outdated about what they were, who they were for and their value. Levelling the playing field for students, particularly for those from backgrounds that are under-represented in higher education, will require a concerted effort in ensuring that those influencing students — often overworked, and stretched teachers — have the right information and support. In the period of increased competition which we’ll see to the end of this decade, teachers, parents, and other key people in young people’s lives will need tailored resources so that young people can access the best pathway for them as an individual. To truly transform the careers support for students, you must transform it for all their influencers as well, otherwise the impact will be reduced.  

So how should we support students to know what’s out there? The UCAS Hub is a great tool for this, and personalisation is key in overcoming the ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ challenge. Pushing content to students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, about support or opportunities available to them that they may not have been aware of will only lead to better decisions by the growing cohort.  

The same thing will happen with pathways. From this year, students will be able to view both university and apprenticeship options side by side in a neutral fashion. That means that for students with aspirations to go into law, they can now see legal apprenticeships alongside law degrees. Not only does this create parity and raise understanding of all of the choices available to students, but the neutrality is key. There won’t be any outdated or ill-informed understanding influencing decisions. It will allow future students to own that decision in its entirety.  

Speaking our language

Students also need to be communicated with about their prospective next steps through the channels that they actually use. TikTok, YouTube, Instagram — these are mediums that my generation uses to make almost every decision – why would picking a university, course or apprenticeship be any different? And one of the central reasons that we do this, particularly when looking at universities, is because they seem to give us a more authentic and honest insight into university life. A quick Google reveals thousands of ‘Day in the Life of’ videos for students across so many different courses and universities, and with so many different life experiences. Students want to hear from students just like them.

But while it’s so valuable to have these unfiltered perspectives, universities and employers themselves could do more to reach out and connect with prospective students about the things that matter to them on the platforms they access. I think this kind of honest, accessible communication is especially important for students who may need additional support to access higher education. Let's take the example of a student who is applying who has caring responsibilities. At the moment, there is no convenient way for this student to see what support for their needs is available at the different universities they’re applying for. In addition, the student experience promised can be disparate from what is experienced. Institutions must be willing to engage authentic student voice to consistently match expectations.  As we head into a period of increasing demand in education, I really want to see universities transparently communicate their offer to applicants in a way and in a format that they use so that students can pick an institution where they will thrive.  

Getting the balance right: autonomy and support

Arriving at university and speaking to my peers, I was intrigued that people had considered different routes of gaining a career outside of higher education and university in general. For me, university was presented as the only option for gaining a career and changing your life. But when I arrived at university, I met individuals who their primary motivation was their passion for their course. I think this highlights a key tension in the university application experience today. As a young person, we’re told to do what you are passionate about. But this is juxtaposed by different societal pressures to make a ‘good’ choice, a choice that helps your life in the long run and the choice that pushes you the most towards what can be defined as ‘success’. This tension might explain why the sector is currently struggling with how we define the value of a university experience. 

However, I think this new landscape gives us the opportunity to enable students to think beyond the ‘career’ vs. ‘passion’ binary, and to provide them with the tools to make choices that work for them. My experience as a student, and particularly my previous position as General Secretary at my university’s Student Union has taught me that there’s definitely no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to higher education. I believe that having an application and educational system which reflects this is crucial for maintaining the quality of the student experience as we head towards a million applicants applying by 2030.  Personalisation is critical. The UCAS Hub provides information and advice which is tailored to each individual applicant, providing interactive guides based on key touchpoints in their research journey, and enabling them to see the many routes through to their desired destination — whether they’ve just started to think about their higher education experience, or whether they have a career in mind. The new widening access questions on the UCAS application also allow students to flag any circumstances which may alter their pathway to HE, and require additional support. Accompanying these new tools in the application must be opportunities for an increasingly diversifying student body to make their voices feel heard, and their experiences recognised. 


As more people access higher education, it’s clear that we need the system to adapt now. I’ve offered some tangible ways that the next generation of students can be supported as we see this growth in their numbers — comprehensive CIAG which is tailored to our unique aspirations, transparent communications from providers, and personalised support provided which celebrates our different pathways to and experiences of HE. Underpinning all of these propositions is an alignment between the expectations and reality of higher education experiences, with clear information, advice and guidance supporting students on their way. Finally, as a student myself, I’d like to see more of us involved in some of these important discussions. After all, it’s our future that’s at stake, so it’s never been more critical for us to make our voices heard and from earlier on.  

Melody Stephen

Law with International Studies student at the University of Manchester

Melody has a strong passion for creating and promoting policies that pursue equality, diversity and inclusion in higher education, having served as General Secretary of University of Manchester Students’ Union as well as on the university’s Board of Governors. She currently sits on the Advance HE Governance Strategic Advisory Group and on the Board of the National Union of Students.