Freshers (un)Fair
By Charlotte Malton. 13th September 2016

Over the next few weeks thousands of students will be packing their bags and heading off to university. With a wide range of further education opportunities developing, university is not the only option out there. However, the traditional reputation of a university degree remains well-established, with Russell Group places enticing students around the world. Promoting equal access to the university experience has been a high priority on the education agenda for many years, yet ComRes research for TeachFirst’s Progression Report highlights key differences in the type of universities students attend based on background and early experiences. Most notably, the time at which students decide to apply to university appears to be a key factor, supporting the value of initiatives which make university seem a realistic option to children from a young age.

Having surveyed more than 1,000 current undergraduate students and split these into two groups - “early deciders” who decided to definitely apply to university before their GCSEs and “late deciders” who decided to definitely apply to university during their GCSEs or later - some important differences become visible regarding the steps students take in their university applications and the universities they end up at.

Early deciders are more likely than late deciders to organise relevant work-experience, undertake academic extra-curricular activities, and undertake non-academic extra-curricular activities to support their university application. Even researching a university course online, something which more than four in five students (84%) report doing, is an action more likely taken by early deciders than late deciders. Such differences in activities may well mean that early deciders make stronger university applications, making them seem more attractive to the most competitive institutions and setting them apart from their later-deciding peers.

Chart 1

Indeed this process may help to explain why early deciders are more likely than late deciders to attend higher-tariff institutions, such as Russell Group universities, while late deciders are more likely to attend Post-1992 group universities. Given the associations of Russell Group attendance with graduate employment and later life earnings, the early decision to apply to university may have longer-lasting impact than just the university years.

Chart 2

Given early deciders appear advantaged in their applications to their later-deciding peers and are more likely to secure places at high-tariff universities, teachers, parents, and policy-makers alike share an interest in understanding what makes an early decider. Two candidates for consideration are social background and family/peer influences.

Social Background

Our data shows that early-deciders are more likely to be from more advantaged backgrounds while late-deciders tend to come from less advantaged backgrounds. More than a quarter of undergraduates who say they have always known they would definitely apply to university come from social grade A, with just 15% of those of social grade DE saying the same. If disadvantaged children are starting to consider university later than their peers, and deciding to apply later, it is important that all children have their eyes opened to the possibilities of university early on in their school career if trying to level the playing field.

Peer and family influences

Being surrounded by people who are applying to university may influence expectations and encourage children to think about university at an earlier age. Almost all early deciders report that their family and friends expected them to apply to university, compared to just three quarters of those who decided to apply during their GCSEs or after. Peer influences may also play a part: Russell and Pre-1992 group students are more likely than Post-1992 group students to say that the majority of their peers also applied. An interesting implication of this is that as a school or area increases the proportion of its pupils applying to university, other pupils may be encouraged to apply as it becomes the shared norm. Therefore organisations and interventions which support individuals to apply to university where they might not otherwise (such as The Access Project and Future Frontiers) may have wider impact beyond those individuals they directly support.

Chart 3

Early-intervention is a bit of a buzz-word in education, and this research supports the link between early decisions and later outcomes. GCSEs might be a natural point from which university dawns on the horizon, but our data shows many make their decision earlier than this, and those who do get ahead. Therefore, when considering how best to promote equality of access to university, schools, university outreach programmes, and third-sector initiatives should look to start early. It will be interesting to see whether any of the recently revealed policies, such as requiring universities to sponsor state schools, will have any impact on this. This data also supports the rationale behind projects focussed on lower socio-economic groups and broadening the horizons of those for whom university is not the group norm.

University may not be for everyone. But equality of access is only real if equality is achieved at earlier stages. Unless all children see university as a viable option early on, there may always be a group playing catch-up to their peers for whom attending university was never in doubt.