Supporting access to university

03 July 2019

Sarah Stevens, Director of Policy, discusses why pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are most in need of advice on the importance subject choice in getting into a selective university.

Recently, the Russell Group launched a new interactive website to host our Informed Choices guide explaining how subject choice at school is important for progression to university. The new website provides personalised information for users, enabling them to see which subjects provide the best preparation for the degrees they are interested in and to test various combinations of A-levels, to see which degrees these open up.

We know that those from less advantaged backgrounds tend not to have access to the same quality of information and advice as their better off peers so we tested our new website with hundreds of year 10 pupils in a range of different schools to see how it might help to redress this imbalance. We found that, while similar proportions of pupils from private schools and comprehensives have an idea of the subjects they want to study at sixth form or college, the former are much more likely to be making these decisions in the context of their aspirations to progress to university.

We also found that, while the overwhelming majority of pupils said they thought the Informed Choices website was useful, a higher proportion of those from comprehensive schools said explicitly that their confidence in choosing A-levels had improved (61%) compared to those from private schools (43%). These findings support what we already know: that there are gaps in the aspirations and confidence of young people from different backgrounds. We believe our guide can help level this playing field by ensuring more disadvantaged young people understand the relationship between subject choice at school and opportunities in higher education and by empowering them to make well-informed decisions.

The challenge, of course – and one rightly highlighted by HEPI’s Hugo Dale-Harris – is ensuring such a resource is used by the pupils who may benefit from it most.

We are doing this in a number of ways.

First, the Informed Choices website has been developed in collaboration with heads of widening participation teams at Russell Group universities and is being embedded into outreach work undertaken directly with young people from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds in thousands of schools across the country.

Second, providing our guide as an online offering can support those in rural, coastal and other remote communities who may otherwise struggle to access information and advice directly or to engage with outreach teams on a face-to-face basis. We have written to every school in the country to make them aware of the new website and we are working with the Department for Education to consider how we can promote Informed Choices to young people and teachers in the Government’s Opportunity Areas – the 12 areas identified by the Government as facing the biggest challenges to social mobility.

Third, Informed Choices is linked to and promoted by the Advancing Access service – an collaborative initiative supported by all 24 Russell Group universities – which supports teachers and advisers in deprived areas and higher education “cold spots” to prepare their students to progress to selective universities. The platform is being used by over 2,000 teachers and advisers across the UK and provides a range of resources online and through physical conferences and professional development sessions.

Hugo also asked whether Informed Choices will embed the idea that only students with the “right” subjects will be able to do certain courses.

There are no universally “right” and “wrong” subjects, only those which are right for an individual based on their ambitions and interests. And we want to avoid fuelling the perception that the decisions you make at aged 15 will create a straitjacket limiting future options. But equally, we do young people a disservice if we underplay the extent to which subject choice matters for many degrees. If someone wants to take Anthropology, Law or Psychology at university, subject requirements tend to be flexible. In other areas, such as medicine or most science degrees, subject requirements are more precise, given the need for students to begin their courses with some level of prior knowledge or particular skills. Surely, then, our goal should be to ensure more young people have a clear understanding of these differences? This is precisely what Informed Choices aims to provide.

It is of course right that universities should be looking to expand their intake to include students from disadvantaged backgrounds who didn’t pick the required subjects for their chosen degree course. Many Russell Group universities provide alternative routes to access for people in this position. For example, the University of Southampton offers a range of foundation years for students who want to study science or engineering degrees but don’t have the required A-levels for direct entry onto their chosen degree.

The existence of these alternative routes needs to be flagged to young people so they can benefit from them. In response to these issues, we have added new information to the Informed Choices website to encourage those who have already chosen the “wrong” A-levels for the course they are interested in to explore foundation years and other alternative routes which are on offer.

We very much hope to continue in this spirit: amending and updating the guidance to provide a tool which is as useful as possible. For that reason, the Informed Choices website is currently running in open beta phase and we are seeking feedback from users and other interested parties. Help us refine and improve our guide over the coming months before the new academic year begins.

First published by HEPI.

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