Why are we obsessed with the Journey to a Million applicants?

Clare Marchant, Chief Executive of UCAS, introduces our collection of essays, created in collaboration with Unite Students and Knight Frank, highlighting the challenges and opportunities the Journey to a Million higher education applicants poses both to the education sector and UK PLC.

I am absolutely delighted to be introducing this collection of essays highlighting the challenges and opportunities the Journey to a Million higher education applicants poses both to the education sector and more broadly UK PLC. Ultimately, what we are presenting is as much an economic challenge as it is an education one. We all know upskilling our future workforce is key to the economic success of our communities and country. Of course we are not alone in this demographic driven change – countries such as Ireland and Sweden face similar economic booms but as The Economist points out “Britain’s youth bulge is much more pronounced than the one in the EU as a whole”.i Our challenge is to make the most of this opportunity and serve our future talent in the best possible way.

I am naturally an optimist. It’s difficult not to be, when each year I have the privilege of engaging with hundreds of individuals looking at a transformational step in their own, very individual journey through life. The excitement, sense of possibility, threaded through with expectancy, slight nervousness and desire to be the very best an individual can be, is palpable. I see some tremendous opportunities in this suite of essays to prepare the path for future generations – from the innovative and appropriate use of digital in the essay by Heidi Fraser-Krauss to the opportunity for a service redesign of the student support offer in the essay by Professor Edward Peck CBE and the practical steps that can be in taken across FE and HE in Andy Forbes’ essay.

Here at UCAS, we are always ultra-focused on serving our immediate cohorts of applicants – ensuring those applying for entry to an undergraduate degree or apprenticeship in 2023 and 2024 get the best possible experience – unparalleled customer service and seamless digital interactions are a given but ensuring these individuals get the most transparent, well informed and personalised experience is paramount. Recent innovations in our apprenticeship offerii, Careers Quiz, clearing tools, application data and personalised information, advice and guidance will serve these cohorts well.

However, the role of organisations with a charitable mission like UCAS, goes beyond the immediate, the ‘business as usual’ and incremental change. Our responsibility is to use our annual publication of eight million data points and multiple insights reports to forecast and highlight the more fundamental changes that might be needed to enable choice and educational success for future generations. This directly contributes to more fulfilling and productive lives for those the changes impact and a more productive UK PLC. And the future generations are not far off – an 18-year-old 2030 applicant has just started their exciting journey through secondary education, and has a range of choices in front of them, all of which will have implications for their future options.

It is with this responsibility in mind we have brought together the broad range of views you see in these essays – all authors see opportunity in the challenges ahead if we act collaboratively on behalf of our collective customers. I want to draw attention to just three opportunities. Before I do, let’s familiarise ourselves with the facts.

I love a good quote – there is so much to be learnt from those who came before us. One of my favourites is from my all-time hero Nelson Mandela who back in 2003 said ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’. The direct link between education and the productivity and happiness of a nation is far from absolute, with recent studies captured in a Department for Education paper citing the impact of skills on productivity but suggesting many other factors play a part.iii However, even with other contributory factors such as governance and innovation, no one disputes that education is fundamental to our future health as UK PLC. Our challenge, as with all things, is a potential to over strategise, debate too long or spread ourselves too thin in tackling the medium-term opportunities and challenges the Journey to a Million poses. So, I have selected three fundamentals that I believe need a step change during the course of this decade and with the right collaborative focus can be achieved and make a big impact in improving how we serve our future talent.

Make navigating choices easier

Applicants today are clearly telling us they want to explore a variety of choices post-secondary education and we know they need to be able to do this at a younger age. If one third of applicants say they don’t currently get any information on apprenticeships that’s over 200,000 young people who don’t know their full options – by 2030 with a million applicants this could be 300,000.iv With only 4,720 young people starting a Higher or Degree apprenticeship in 2022v the evidence is there that massive demand exists which is not being adequately served. Whilst the supply side – the levy and how employers engage with apprenticeships – might need reform, the ability of these applicants to navigate from looking to discover the next step to identifying an opportunity, is sub-standard and within our grasp to fix, ahead of the upcoming cohorts of applicants – who start to consider choices as early as primary school.vi

Apprenticeships need to be listed in one place – more than one is fine but they need at least one, trusted, engaging place they can go to which hand holds them through the process from exploring subjects to an industry, an employer, the practicalities of an apprenticeship through to the art of writing a Curriculum Vitae and attending an interview. Of course bringing parity to navigating choices isn’t all about apprenticeships given the rich and varied academic, technical and vocational routes but as Walt Disney once said: ‘The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing’.

Build diversity into our DNA

Diversity of thought and experience makes us more rounded, collaborative individuals. Progression in higher education looks to promote this diversity and is measured through a plethora of different criteria – where you live, what your caring arrangements are, what disability you might have, your nationality, your religion, your gender and so on. Whether it be an undergraduate degree or an apprenticeship, mixing with others from different backgrounds is critical to expand your thinking and appreciate differences. It also adds to UK PLC when the best and brightest, regardless of background are successful in their educational progression and attainment and contribute productively in entering the world of work.

In 2022 66,000 more 18-year-olds from an advantaged background applied to an undergraduate degree than from the most disadvantaged backgrounds – and this gap could be over 80,000 in 2030. However, this could be optimistic. If applicants find it difficult to navigate the range of choices, aren’t gifted with the latest tools to drive decision making and are not aware of the support available to them then only those with the privilege of proactive parents, carers and ample careers support at school or college will find themselves able to start early, be aware of the opportunities on offer and put themselves forward in the best possible light to progress, whatever route this may be. If I am an applicant in care, living with a disability or on the wrong side of the digital divide I am less likely to be able to take advantage of the most selective institutions, courses, or apprenticeship opportunities. And so, the divide potentially gets wider. This is before we look at the challenge of lifelong learning and how we engage those mature students balancing work, caring responsibilities, and a desire to retrain.

UCAS recognises its role here. In 2022, we added seven new questions that transform the visibility of groups such as carers and estranged students as they apply for their higher education.vii We continue to personalise the journey of these students through the UCAS Hub, tackling the ‘you don’t know what you don’t know challenge’, and in 2023 we are launching our Outreach Connection Service – enhancing transparency around these support initiatives. But this is a whole sector challenge, and needs to start earlier – with our insight suggesting aspiration or ambition can be won and lost as early as primary school.viii To truly tackle widening access challenges, that will become more challenging in light of the Journey to a Million, we need to think more consistently across a student’s entire time in education.

Drive transparency through data

Transparency on its own does not aid choice but when presented in an engaging, personalised and data driven format we know individuals hold it in high regard – look at the 1.3 million individuals who annually create an account on the UCAS Hub, the 1.6m who have completed the labour market information driven Careers Quiz, or the over 45,000 who over the last three years have utilised Clearing Plus. The potential is enormous, largely untapped and hugely exciting.

In making the navigation and exploration of choice easier, applicants of all ages to all destinations want the sort of experience they get when making a purchase, choosing a film or picking a future partner. They want recommendations, peer reviews and clear, consistent data points on things that matter to them. This is starting to take shape with the undergraduate admissions service, both with innovations UCAS has introduced but as individual universities and colleges make their student feedback and post graduate destinations clearer and more engaging with universities as diverse as Birmingham to Bangor excelling in their careers support.ix

Clear, transparent use of data is driving contextual admissions with the guaranteed offer in Scotland for those with care experience meeting the minimum entry requirements being a good example.x However, the use of data in providing transparency still has some way to go and is almost entirely absent from non-undergraduate destinations. Imagine a world in which employers can seek out talent from those looking to continue learning post-secondary and approach them about exciting vocational routes, similar to the principles of Clearing Plus. This is just one way we can use data to drive transparency of choice in a short-term window at the cusp of our Journey to a Million.

So what next?

Preparing for the upcoming decade needs to start now. There are some brilliant ideas in this collection of essays but very few of them can be implemented in isolation by a single organisation. Another of my all-time heroes Helen Keller once said ‘Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much’ and never has there been a more apt time to work in a collaborative way than now. Some changes will take longer than we would like. With 30 years working on digitally enabled change that is truly customer led, I know how long some changes can take but others such as those highlighted in Pat Carvalho’s and Melody Stephen’s essays are eminently doable in the short term and give all of us reason to be excited about the future.

Of course, collaborative change reaps secondary benefits. The more organisations focus together on making navigation easier, building diversity into our thinking and systems and using data to drive transparency the more trust will build and further ideas and innovation will surface. And with them comes even more significant opportunities to serve our future generations in the best way we can – what better obsession can there be?

Clare Marchant, Chief Executive, UCAS

Clare has been UCAS Chief Executive since 2017 and is passionate about delivering reform and value in public services, and particularly, the benefit education can bring to both an individual’s overall life chances, and creating a more productive society. She is privileged to lead UCAS during this time of considerable change in the education sector and have the opportunity to transform its services to students, universities, colleges, and student advisers. Clare started her career within manufacturing, before moving to management consultancy with Deloitte, then central and local government, latterly as Chief Executive of Worcestershire County Council. She graduated from Hull University in 1993 and gained a MSc from the Open University in 1998.

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