Access to careers information and guidance on pathways to higher education should never be reserved for those ‘in the know.’
It is UCAS’ ambition to be the ’go to’ place for post-secondary education, independent, trusted information and advice, levelling the playing field for all those that are interested in staying in education or training after school or college at the age of 18. The choices students are faced with are vast, so personalised support to help them navigate is vital to enable every student to have equal opportunity to make the right choices for them.
But if we place ourselves in the shoes of students, the landscape is uneven and difficult to charter.
Our new report ‘Where next?’, published today (25 March), reveals that two in five students say that had they been provided with better information and advice they would have made better decisions in school. One in five students told us that they felt that a door had been closed to them, leaving them unable to study a course that interested them because they didn’t have the right subjects for entry. And almost one in three applicants say they received no information about apprenticeships at school, despite 47% of attendees of UCAS events expressing an interest in them.
These alarming findings provide us all with a challenge – to execute our information and advice in such a way that it is engaging, personalised, timely, accessible and trusted. It is a challenge but also an opportunity – imagine how much more satisfied and thereby successful students would be if their choices were more informed and easily navigated.
The point at which young people begin to consider higher education varies widely between individuals. Our survey analysis found that more than three in four students first realised higher education was an option for them before they started post-16 education, and one in three first realised this when they were still at primary school, with this varying significantly based on level of advantage or disadvantage.
Our report presents us with clear evidence that disadvantaged pupils tend to think about the prospect of higher education later than their more advantaged peers, with 27% from POLAR4 Q1 (the most disadvantaged group) realising this in primary school, compared to 39% of those from Q5 (the most advantaged group) – reaffirming the findings of UCAS’ 2016 Student Lens report and the 2019 Founders4Schools report, which emphasises the role of primary schools in shaping and broadening aspirations.
A quarter of students do not think about higher education until they start their post-16 qualifications, and for many this can be too late if they are thinking of studying certain subjects at university such as medicine, dentistry, maths, economics or languages. Such subjects tend to have more ‘fixed’ pathways, inadvertently blocking access for some students. The ability to gain information and advice should never be a lottery, left to chance, or for people to opt-in – it should be built-in. That’s what UCAS is about.
Not everyone knows what they want to do from an early age and the record number of mature applicants in January (96,390 UK applicants aged 21+), an increase of 24% compared to 2020, shows us that paths to higher education are varied, and don’t always start in school. The importance of careers advice that follows the Gatsby Benchmarks could not be clearer, especially at primary school and early on at secondary school.
UCAS can be the digital equaliser for schools in the provision of Careers, Information, Advice and Guidance – no matter who you are or where you are, we are here to help and support you and your school in creating our students of tomorrow. The findings in our report mean we need to work more closely than ever with works with partners in this space to undertake more targeted and personalised outreach work within primary schools and early secondary years with a subject focus, to promote early thinking and awareness of pathways.
By providing clarity and transparency at every stage of the student journey through structured engagement and advice as part of the core function of delivering education in schools, we can pave the way for greater awareness of the routes less trodden like apprenticeships and technical qualifications and all the opportunities they offer.
We may not have the power to ensure that every door remains open for every student indefinitely, but every student should know their options, and what the consequences of their potential decisions are so that they have the power to make informed decisions. So that their paths are unobstructed, in their own hands, and that they are equipped with the guidance and direction to know for themselves that a closed door is not the end, it is the start of another journey.