Inspiring talks from successful students about the value of university are far more powerful in persuading school pupils to apply than reassurance about fees, loans or future earnings.
That is the main finding from a study that found that giving pupils information about the costs and financial benefits of higher education made them significantly less likely to want to go to university.
Conversely, talks that emphasised the lifestyle benefits of university were found to significantly boost pupils’ interest in and likelihood of attending.
The report, from the Behavioural Insights Team in collaboration with the Somerset Challenge, a partnership of schools in the county, was based on trials with pupils across 19 secondary schools in Somerset during 2014-15. It targeted pupils who had good A levels but did not want to progress to higher education, a challenge the report states is more commonplace in Somerset than in other parts of the country.
The trials involved dispelling commonly held myths about university, supplying pupils with information widely thought to be missing during higher education discussions and testing new ways to help young people raise their aspirations and improve their academic performance. It also involved a series of talks from university students delivered to pupils in years 10 to 13.
The team carrying out the research outlined the new system of tuition fees and repayment rates and the type of financial aid available, as well as providing evidence claiming that having a degree increases lifetime income by £200,000.
However, the report says that showing this information to parents “did not have a significant effect” on students’ interest in higher education. It adds that giving the same information to pupils resulted in an even lower rate of interest in and lower reported likelihood of applying to university.
Michael Sanders, head of research and evaluation at the Behavioural Insights Team, said: “Although further research is needed, what we've learned so far suggests that some of the received wisdom on why young people don’t attend university may not have been entirely accurate, and that emotional and social factors also play an important role.”