Young people divided on university aspirations

New research from Which? University and education charity Transformation Trust has found that a majority of young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds think university just ‘isn’t for them’.

Which? asked 1,000 16-19 year olds whether they were intending to apply to university, and found that more young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were not planning to apply (36%), compared to those from more advantaged backgrounds (16%), showing the gap in university aspirations remains wide.

When asked about the motivations behind not applying to university, around six in ten (63%) young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds said it just ‘isn’t for them’. The research showed that financial worries ranked highly as a reason why they thought this, with two in five (42%) young people from this group assuming university would be too expensive for them. Only a quarter (26%) of young people from higher socioeconomic backgrounds thought the same.

The research also highlighted that some 16-19 year olds haven’t made their mind up yet about whether they plan to attend university. Nearly four in ten (37%) of the young people we asked who were uncertain said there was either too much to think about, they didn’t think they had enough information, or they were confused by their options.

To help young people make an informed decision about whether university is for them at an earlier stage, Which? University and Transformation Trust have teamed up to launch a pioneering programme for 3,000 Year 10 students in schools in selected communities across the UK.

The programme, Junior University – which builds on the government’s aspirations to widen participation – aims to broaden horizons by getting young people thinking about their futures earlier. It intends to complement the advice and guidance currently being given in schools, by pairing students who are more likely to believe university is ‘not for them’ with undergraduate mentors from 11 UK universities. Working on a joint academic project, students will get a real-life view of what degree-level learning is like, while busting some of the myths around going to university along the way.

The research also found:

  • Students still unsure of the facts about university: Only 55% of those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds knew the correct student loan income repayment threshold was £21,000, compared to 64% of those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.

  • Students whose parents did not attend university more likely to worry about ‘fitting in’: Nearly half (45%) of young people who plan to attend university worry about fitting in; this is higher amongst those whose parents did not attend university (50%) compared to those whose parents did (41%).

  • Family and peers influence future decisions: Overall, 7% of young people who said they planned to apply to university said one motivation to do so was because their parents did. Of those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, 10% said this was the case, which was three times more than those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (3%). Likewise, twice as many young people said they are going to apply to university because their friends will be applying (one in four or 25%, compared to one in seven or 13% from lower socioeconomic backgrounds).

Alex Hayman, of Which? University said:

“We want to ensure young people can make well-informed decisions about their futures armed with the right information and confidence they need. Without that, there’s a danger they may limit their own ambition or think certain opportunities just aren’t for them.

“The advice, support and real-life experience of what university is like, which Junior University will offer, is critical to helping young people think about their options earlier and broaden their horizons.”

Amy Leonard, of Transformation Trust said:

“Universities are already putting a lot of effort into encouraging young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds to give serious consideration to continuing their studies post school. Junior University aims to inject new energy into these efforts by focusing on students who have typically not yet made up their minds.

“With undergraduates giving a taster of what university is really like, Junior University aims to encourage 15 year olds to ‘think big’ about their futures and instead of ruling out university, rule it in.”

Notes to Editors

  • Junior University has been designed to help widen participation amongst 14-15 year-olds in schools with a higher amount of Pupil Premium funding across the UK, to give them a flavour of university study. The programme will see 11 universities engage with 50 state secondary schools across the UK over the course of the next academic year, reaching a total of 3,000 Year 10 students. Student mentors from each university will bust some of the myths around finances and personal development opportunities. Visit: for more information.

  • Which? University is a free and independent website to help students make more informed decisions about higher education, featuring more than 30,000 courses and 281 universities and colleges to search and compare. We bring together facts and statistics from official sources including UCAS and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), and combine these with real-life insight from students and the unbiased, expert analysis you’d expect from Which?

  • This research interviewed 1,000 16-19 year olds in the UK and was conducted online by Lightspeed Research. Fieldwork was undertaken between 24th October and 4th November 2016. The data was weighted to be representative by gender and region.  We weighted by these demographics only, so the data is not nationally representative in terms of other variables, e.g. income.

  • The socioeconomic background of the respondents is determined by the occupation of the chief income earner in the household. Households are classified by the NRS social grade classification system. We have defined higher social grade households as ABC1s; lower social grade households as C2DEs.

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