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Student Experience Survey 2016: Which university? Which course?

Stephen Petty examines how today’s sixth-formers make their university choices

  • Rankings for Students
  • Student life

Stephen Petty

March 17 2016
An open book with different shaped holes on the pages


View the full results of the Student Experience Survey 2016

Shift in sixth-former attitudes

I was reminded recently of the famous Labour pre-election broadcast of 1987. With a backcloth of coastal landscapes, a soaring seagull and a rambling pair of Kinnocks, to the rousing strains of Beethoven’s 9th, the then leader of the party reflected in his voice-over on how he had been the first Kinnock “in a thousand generations” to get the opportunity to go to university. “Was this because my ancestors were all thick?” he asked, his tone now verging on rage. It was manufactured, yet moving – still is.

So it was disconcerting to hear one of the brightest in my sixth-form tutor group informing me recently that he was intending to catapult his own family history in precisely the opposite direction. He was proud to be the first in generations not to go to university. He had been offered a good job locally, which provided training and prospects, and he was already enjoying a fulfilling life.

His story is not exactly typical but it does highlight a noticeable shift in sixth-former attitudes. While the number applying to university may be continuing to rise, there is rather less certainty and conviction in the air.

With prestigious employers such as Ernst & Young and Penguin Random House openly moving away from graduate-focused recruitment, those doubts seem likely to grow rather than diminish.

The new anxiety – and it’s not about debt

Adding to that uncertainty are those well-publicised worries about debt, although many university applicants today seem more anxious about surviving academically rather than how they will fare financially.

They have good reason to be anxious. Their whole experience of academia from the age of five to 18 now seems to involve a gradual decrease – rather than increase – in the amount of independent learning and initiative expected.

Sixth-formers are no longer cut much slack. The consequences of their idling or straying are too dire for school rankings and ratings. The result is that university-style study now constitutes more than a mere academic progression; it represents, for many, a huge leap into the unknown.

So, given that they are perhaps the wariest, most insecure students in a thousand generations, how does this affect the way they go about choosing suitable courses and universities?

The irrational first phase

Given the above, prospective students’ first thoughts are about risk minimisation. Rather than taking a punt on something less familiar, they look for the recognisable brand names. They seek out courses and places that have a good “reputation”, even if this is based purely on something a parent might have said to them.

Sometimes that reputation is justified, of course; but often it is baseless, or at least outdated, and it is my role to challenge such reputations. Many a mediocre course draws undeserved early interest simply because the university offering it has been given the Russell Group tick of approval. This is sometimes no more rational than opting for the ­pricier Nike-ticked training shoe ahead of all the other less fashionable brands.

It’s much the same story for prospective overseas students, who have had access to increasing amounts of information on reputation rankings in recent years.

Stephen Parkes, head of the international student advice website Go Enrol, reports that “while the cachet of studying in the UK used to be enough, many students now want to study at a university that is familiar to their employers and to their social circle at home”.

The second-phase search

Nonetheless, students online do then start to click on other less-familiar course locations. To keep them on that page it is definitely worth the website offering some kind of reassurance regarding that blessed “reputation”. Students will naturally be drawn to an eye-catching website that will appeal to their youthful aspirations, but the most successful pages will reassure them on the prestige front too. Maybe not quite “Come to Wessex University, purveyors of the finest Modern Languages since 1923”, but there should certainly be more than a mere nod in that ­direction.

Next stage: reach for the map

A knock-on effect of their greater insecurity is a desire to study near home – not necessarily down the road but certainly within two to three hours by bus or train.

Rather disappointingly, location serves as a significant influence on many a student’s selection process.

Reaching the shortlist

If courses do get through the student’s sometimes questionable filtering process, they are then compared very closely. This later stage is much more analytical and rational, although usually the student’s preference hinges on one key factor.

It might be the extra appeal of that particular course, or the technology available, or perhaps the work or residential experiences offered, or the prevailing opinions on student review websites. Increasingly, however, I find that the student uses his or her comparative experiences on open days as a deciding factor.

The open day can swing it

The open day has become perhaps the major influence. “Reputation” takes a back seat as students actually get a feel for the university, the course and the mood there.

With sixth-formers tending to be a little needier about it all, a welcoming, organised and supportive day is more influential than ever.

Somehow it still works

The process all sounds a bit flaky and flawed, yet most students still somehow end up at a suitable place. Perhaps it was ever thus.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire.

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