How can we support ‘A Million’ good decisions? 

Courteney Sheppard, Head of Customer Contact, UCAS and David Penney, Director of Marketing, UCAS

By 2030, students looking to progress from their secondary education qualifications (A levels, T Levels, Highers etc) will have been through at least two national lockdowns, varying degrees of disruption to their learning journeys and they will be presented with the choice of far more options available to them than any other cohort before. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence, they will also be the cohort that will face the biggest changes to the economy, and therefore careers, since the industrial revolution.  

The equation here is more choices than ever before for students, a rapidly changing careers landscape and with the Journey to a Million, increased competition. This means that choice, and the support needed in making that choice, is even more critical.  

Given this context, how do we ensure a million good decisions?   

Whilst UCAS has historically been focussed on the traditional full time undergraduate degree, our services have expanded and look to give the power of Discovery and Choice to students with personalised tools, meaning they can then navigate choice in an informed and rational way. The demand for this was never more apparent than during the pandemic, as students sought trusted guidance from a brand they recognised and could rely on.  

We recognise that with changing student demands, and new skills requirements, we have to go further – presenting students with all of their options, in a way that they want to explore them. The students we serve today grew up with digital device almost from the moment they were born. In every other aspect of their lives, personalisation is a baseline expectation; when was the last time you actually choose what to watch on Netflix as opposed to being recommended something?  

And students expect no different from their career information advice and guidance. Students have long trusted UCAS with their data and we are now increasingly using what they tell us about their background, aspirations and qualifications to create personalised journeys and tools to guide their decisions, with our Career Quiz providing personalised recommendations and used by more than one million students within a few months of its launch.

Navigating the landscape

We know from UCAS research students are closing down options without realising it until it is too late – 1 in 5 closes a door to course of interest due to qualification and subject selection, with disadvantaged students more likely to be in this group.Mapping the route to a career of choice isn’t easy, particularly if you have never done it before, or you lack access to broader support. Not only do we need to support students in making choices, but we also need to articulate the consequences of that choice – and how they may be able to bridge into other pathways should they wish to. The map needs to be visible and well understood by all.   

Making choices can be challenging. Students are able to apply to over 50,000 undergraduate courses, along with a wide range of other destinations. Students need support in navigating this to make the decision that is right for them. While there is a significant range of career information advice and guidance sources, students are sometimes unsure of the quality and independence of the advice that is on offer. While there is a plethora of data available on the quality of courses, the individual providers, the student experience, the outcomes of the graduates etc, students often find the sheer volume of data available overwhelming, and it can be put aside in the decision-making process as more emotional elements come to the fore. Students may put undue weight on options which are recommended from the experiences of their immediate peer group. When exploring Amazon, how many of us go straight to the review section, or look at Trustpilot? We do this to make the decision simpler.  

This is where UCAS comes in. UCAS has access to unparalleled data that shows the relationship between qualifications taken at school, entry to higher education choices and can match those with graduate outcome data. We also know that students trust UCAS with their personal data and value the independence of UCAS advice and guidance. Data and decision-making tools from UCAS carry authority, given the unique role UCAS has in the decision-making process – ultimately making the huge amount of data available to students much more digestible, and therefore impactful. 

From the soon-to-be-launched Entry Grades Report, to more sophisticated developments via Clearing Plus and a course recommendation engine (which could enable students to use data to build their own personal league table of options), we aren’t going to simply expect the student to do the work and investigate these tools. We will deliberately give them options, allow them to choose their pathways and then look to capitalise on what those different outcomes could be.  

Our insight into students means we can support them at those key moments in their journey. The point in a student’s journey when they choose their final five choices for their UCAS form is really a pivotal moment. We know that most students find it relatively simple to get a long list of choices together, and the challenge then comes in narrowing that down to the five that they finally submit to UCAS, and in so doing begin to lock in their future path. How do we empower students to make that leap? Well, it starts with giving them a platform to engage with early on – not waiting until they get to their final 2 years of school or college to begin engaging with UCAS. The Hub is a space where students will be able to start this journey earlier and earlier, complemented by a support structure that their school/college advisor will be able to access. The more interaction and data that UCAS begins to collect, the sharper we can refine the personalisation for the student – thus making clear the routes through all the pathways and choice they have in front of them.  

The key here is having the early engagement and giving both students and teachers the platform to utilize the impartial and objective nature of UCAS’s position at the centre of this landscape. We aim to be with the student throughout their decision-making journey – not just at the end. This is key given that higher education choices are rarely instant realisations, and instead form over time – 1 in 3 students considers higher education as early as primary school.ii

Broadening horizons

To add to the mix, a new and for many less familiar world of apprenticeships is opening up. This is key – as we progress to through the Journey to a Million, and competition grows, it is likely that some students will need to think differently about their choices. This could involve different course, universities, routes in or pathway.  

As many as 50% of the applicants in 2022 were interested in finding out more about apprenticeships but this number falls dramatically when looking at the numbers of those who actually enrolled onto one. Part of this is due to limited opportunities, but also due to challenges associated in finding these opportunities.  

We are creating a greater side by side experience for undergraduate choices and apprenticeships, making it easier to explore the full range of choice, but as we announced during National Apprenticeship Week, also connect to these choices. Some students also see applying for traditional higher education and apprenticeships as either/or and we hope that by creating personalised journeys, along with a more joined up application experience, students can see there are multiple ways to achieve a single career destination. Applying for a traditional degree course at the same time or alongside an apprenticeship application could become to the norm. Inside the Hub, students will start to define and lockdown their career destinations and we can present route neutral pathways to get there; helping them define their goal.

The goal here is to make all options available to students much more visible, meaningful to them, and easier to connect to. In 2030, we could see a million higher education applicants, with a million big decisions to make – and our aim to ensure every one is a good one.

i UCAS (2021), What influences the choices school leavers make?

ii Ibid.

Courteney Sheppard

Head of Customer Contact, UCAS

Courteney has worked at UCAS for over 12 years and has supported thousands of students on their journey to their next destinations in that time. Courteney currently focuses on the incoming customer contact from students, providers, advisers, teachers, parents and anyone else needing support from UCAS. Together with his team, UCAS handles over 600,000 queries across the year with two main peaks in January and August. 

David Penney

Director of Marketing, UCAS

Dave Penney is Director of Marketing at UCAS, where he has worked since 2019.  He looks after all communications and marketing activity to over 1 million students a year, UCAS’ 300+ colleges and universities as well as UCAS events.  He has led marketing and communications at four UK universities, including Nottingham Trent and Oxford Brookes University and has won numerous CASE and HEIST awards for his creative and digital campaigns.