Fifth of students thwarted by subject choices, UCAS finds

New research from the university admissions service UCAS has found that one in five higher education (HE) students report that they could not study a subject that interested them because they did not have the relevant prior subjects for entry, with two in five believing that more information and advice would have led to them making better choices.

The findings come from a new report Where next? What influences the choices school leavers make? in which UCAS surveyed over 27,000 first and second year students – including overseas students - at UK universities and colleges, asking them about the choices they made at school and into HE. Students of some qualifications were more likely than others to report having been frustrated in their ambitions. For example, 26 per cent of BTEC students said that they were unable to study a subject that interested them because they had not studied the relevant subject/s for entry, compared to just 18 per cent of A Level students. The researchers also found that just 3 per cent of those with vocational qualifications (such as BTECs) who entered HE attended ‘high-tariff’ providers, compared to 27 per cent of those with general qualifications (such as A Levels). The report points out that as the roll out of T Levels accelerates, it will be important that students know where all pathways can take them.

Nearly three quarters of those surveyed (74 per cent) said they chose their degree subject based on the subject they enjoyed most. Good career prospects was the next most commonly cited influence, with 54 per cent saying it had been a factor in their thinking. UCAS also found that one in three of respondents reported first thinking about HE while at primary school, although this was more common for more advantaged pupils (39 per cent) compared to those from less well off backgrounds (27 per cent).

The report calls for careers information, advice and guidance (CIAG) to be more embedded in primary schools and the early secondary years, with expansion of both the Gatsby benchmarks and the Careers & Enterprise Company’s ‘Primary Platform’. They would also like universities and colleges to undertake more outreach work with these age groups. Another suggestion is that Ofsted should place more emphasis on the monitoring of CIAG in schools, including Primary schools.

Clare Marchant, chief executive at UCAS, commented: ‘Students today face more options than ever before. Whilst choice is a core part of the UK higher education system, it is essential that students know how to navigate this. No student should unknowingly close the door to their career aspirations. We know that early engagement raises aspiration. The data showing that disadvantaged students tend to consider the prospect of higher education later than their more advantaged peers clearly demonstrates the need to embed CIAG within primary schools and early secondary years to raise aspirations from an early age.’


Also commenting on the research, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, commented ‘We agree that every pupil should have access to high-quality careers information and advice in helping them to choose degree courses, apprenticeships and careers. Unfortunately, the government dismantled national careers advice services in 2012 and left schools and colleges to pick up the pieces while squeezing their budgets. Matters have improved since then through various initiatives but government support is characteristically piecemeal and inadequate.’ He also emphasised that primary schools are already undertaking CIAG, citing Department for Education (DfE) research from 2018 showing 96 per cent of primary schools were offering tailored career activities to pupils.

A DfE spokesperson said: ‘We have invested over £100m this financial year alone towards high quality careers provision including the rollout of the Enterprise Adviser network reaching more than 4,000 schools and colleges and connecting 3.3 million young people to future employers, and National Careers Service support to those who need it.’

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