No direction leads to university

April 9, 1999

Young people do not apply to university to improve their job prospects or earnings potential, according to Cardiff University researcher Sara Williams.

In Ms Williams's survey, an overwhelming majority of respondents admitted that they had just "drifted" in to higher education.

"This phenomenon provides contradictory evidence to the notion that individuals are involved in making decisions about their participation in education," Ms Williams said. "The taken-for-granted attitudes are certainly not indicative of the behaviour of rational, calculating economic actors weighing up the benefits - in terms of future pay off - against opportunity costs," she said.

The idea of "drifting" suggested that going on to higher education was not something decided on at a specific point. Rather it seemed to be something that happened gradually as individuals moved through the education system.

"The respondents are in fact going along with something that is bigger than themselves," said Ms Williams, whose research was revealed at the conference of the British Sociological Association, which took place at Glasgow University this week.

Her qualitative research, based on interviews with more than 30 young people, revealed that the majority remained in post-compulsory education because they lacked direction.

"A remarkably high proportion of those interviewed spoke of having no future career plans when they were making their decision," Ms Williams said.

They spoke of their decision being a natural progression, but for the majority of the respondents, progression to higher education was not natural in terms of family history, which Ms Williams took to suggest there were other factors at work.

"It begs the question of where exactly this naturalness comes from. What are the social processes that bring this naturalness about?" Ms Williams believed the most important issue was the failure of human capital theory - the idea that individuals invest in themselves by participating in education then later reaping the rewards - to provide an answer to these questions.

"To put it crudely, something happened between the time in which the respondents' parents and the respondents themselves made their decisions about participation," she said.

Ready for work? page 33-37

STUDENT DRIFT

"I could not say why I wanted to go to university. I suppose it is just a natural progression to go from infant school to comprehensive school and then on to sixth form or tech. And then you go to university" - Nia

"I think higher education was expected of me because of the results I was getting" - Owen

"If I am honest about it, it was another three years to decide what I wanted to do" - Jonathan

"I just kept going.

I just followed the crowds. I didn't make a definite decision, but I sort of went along with it" - Abigail.

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