The individuality of student choice

Monday 30 January 2023, Student choice

by Carys Willgoss, Principal Policy Adviser, UCAS

The individuality of student choice

Carys Willgoss, Principal Policy Adviser, UCAS

The chance to go to university or begin a traineeship or apprenticeship is one of the biggest decisions an individual will make. It’s not just a big financial investment, but a period of major emotional and psychological upheaval. So, what’s behind this decision? To what extent do factors such as employability, the chance to develop skills, and wellbeing metrics influence applicants’ behaviour? And how do individual perceptions of value affect decision-making? Here’s what we learnt from a survey of around 20,000 applicants applying through UCAS for undergraduate study in 2022.

Value matters to students, but is a highly subjective concept

Upfront we learn that it is ‘extremely important’ or ‘important’ to more than nine in 10 individuals that their course is ‘good value’. Moreover, the proportion of applicants who say value is ‘extremely important’ increases with age – 75% for those aged 25 and over, relative to 62% for 18-year-olds – reflecting the magnitude of the decision to re- or upskill at a later stage in life. The evidence is clear: value matters.

However, more than 2/3 of applicants agree that a ‘good value’ course will look very different or different to every student. This is the crux of the challenge, as acknowledged by students themselves. Subjectivity is key – in the words of one respondent: ”Everyone values different things. It will be up to the applicant if [the experience] matches with their personal values or not.” Nonetheless, there are a series of consistent themes that underpin students’ perception of value.

Initially, applicants are interested in career prospects after their degree

When first thinking about the motivation behind their degree, the majority are focused on their future career – just under half referencing either career pathway or prospects. This is reflective of a trend UCAS has noted post-pandemic as individuals become increasingly career focussed.

UCAS has previously highlighted the importance of enjoyment as a significant motivator in subject choice, and this is also the case for the decision to go to university in the first place – 11% cite enjoyment as their number one motivation, ahead of salary (10%). We note some variation by background - salary is three percentage points more likely to be chosen as the biggest motivator for those from less advantaged backgrounds (14%) relative to their most advantaged peers (11%).

But, thinking forward, skills and a meaningful job are more important than earnings

That said, when it comes to what applicants anticipate they will get out of their degree, developing skills comes out top (63% for UK applicants) – the political swing from ‘education, education, education’ to ‘skills, skills, skills’ is now reflected in the applicant mindset.  Getting a ‘meaningful job’ is also noted as one of the most important factors (62%), along with softer skills such as confidence building (56%) and making friends (41%). Salary lags, said to be important for an average of 23% of respondents from the UK.

Here, we note some interesting points of divergence across the UK nations. For example, in Northern Ireland, job security features within the top three most popular responses, reflective of an economy where ‘a job for life’ is more common, and a higher proportion of individuals applying through UCAS to vocational subjects e.g., nursing (11% of Northern Irish applicants vs. 8% of English applicants) and health and social care (6% vs. 3%). In the short term, graduate salary is of less importance to Scottish students than their peers (-4 percentage points), likely reflecting the funding environment whereby tuition is free and, as a result, average student debt notably lower.

Student wellbeing is seen as the best measure of ‘value’

Finally, when we ask about what data could be considered as the best measure of value, wellbeing and happiness scores top the list, cited by more than four in  five individuals, followed by employment and graduate earnings data. This sort of insight is particularly useful for UCAS in its role as an information provider – how can we get this information to applicants to make choices clearer?

There are notable differences in response dependent on subject choice with those choosing maths placing far higher importance on graduate earnings data (67%) relative to those applying to education courses (44%). Similarly, more than half (56%) of those choosing communications courses, such as journalism and publishing, cite information about networking opportunities as critical to their decision-making. Such trends are not surprising given that maths graduates have one of the highest recorded salaries and careers in the media are often built on interpersonal relationships.

For UCAS, there is nothing more important than students making the right choice. What these survey findings tell us is how each decision is an individual one – there are a variety of complex and interconnected reasons why a pathway could be said to offer value to a student. That’s why the future is in personalisation – a world where the UCAS Hub is an immersive experience, with each stage of the discovery journey unique to the individual.

In the words of one student, “anything and everything can help a student to decide, depending on their situation and prospects” – it’s not up to the sector, government, or commentators to determine what students value, it’s up to the students themselves.