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Are career advisers wrong?

  • 29 April 2014
  • By Nick Hillman

Yesterday I spoke to a careers guidance conference. It was very good to interact directly with those who are in charge of giving advice to young people on their futures. As I said in my speech, my own experience as a secondary school teacher running a pre-university course showed me that giving out such advice can be a very important and rewarding role.

It’s also of national importance because, when young people make the wrong decisions, it is bad for them and costly for the country. And, as Hepi’s Academic Experience Survey 2013 showed, many young people do regret the choices they make.

But I was shocked that the conference came alive most only when someone made the standard attack (circa 2010) on England’s undergraduate tuition fees and loans system. There was a rousing round of applause from the other attendees in response to the argument that the current system is putting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds off higher education.

I responded with the evidence that suggests that just is not true. Many people have ideological or personal grounds for disliking tuition fees and loans. And young people with disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to attend higher education than their richer counterparts, which is a genuine problem. But the data suggest it is wrong to claim the new system is putting young people from tougher backgrounds off in greater numbers than in the past. If anything, the opposite is true.

The episode has been bugging me ever since I left the conference for an important reason. If some of the nation’s most committed career advisers believe something the data disprove, then there is a real risk that it will corrupt the advice they proffer. Their fear could even become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

There is, of course, a chance that I am wrong and that career advisers have on-the-ground intelligence about young people and their decisions that has not yet arrived in the data. Perhaps people who were already in the sixth-form / years 12 and 13 when fees were tripled had already set their heart on higher education and were never going to be deflected. Perhaps their younger siblings will behave differently when the time comes. Or I suppose, at a pinch, career advisers who are pessimistic about higher education finance might go the extra mile to persuade their charges of the benefits of a degree. But all this is nothing more than conjecture and there was no evidence on display for it.

One of the things about this episode that bothers me is that, if we are forever destined to repeat unproven (disproven?) arguments from the past, then we will take our eye off where problems really do exist – as with the take-up of part-time and postgraduate study or the recruitment of international students.

There was a second, much more interesting, point from the floor about MOOCs: should career advisers push people towards them? I said no – at least not yet – as however good they are for informal learning, employers largely don’t recognise them yet. Another speaker suggested this was a very old-fashioned view. You can read more about these sorts of arguments in Peter Scott’s recent speech to a Hepi breakfast on the Events section of this website.

Finally, if you want to know what young people in higher education really think, come to our spring conference on 21st May in London, where we will be launching this year’s Academic Experience Survey in conjunction with the Higher Education Academy. Unlike the official National Student Survey, it includes post-2012 entrants (the £9k ones) and it delves more deeply into the learning experience. It also has the first ever full assessment of students’ well-being at different universities.

And you’ll have the chance to hear a journalist from The Times, Jenni Russell, interview David Willetts on all these sorts of issues.


  1. I enjoyed Nick’s presentation at the Decisions 18 conference the other day.

    I’m glad that he endorses the importance of career education and guidance in helping young people to thinking about eductional choices. Recent research from the Futuretrack study ( suggests that a range of advice and guidance as well as access to good quality guidance do make clear differences to the quality of young people’s choices. In short the more career support you have the less likely you are to drop out.
    Career education and guidance also offers a number of other benefits including making the learning and labour markets work more efficiently and contributing to social justice.

    Nick’s objection is that he had a difference of opinion about the impact of tuition fees. He is absolutely right that so far the raising of tuition fees doesn’t seem to have deterred young people (from any background) from attending university. It would be possible to hail this as a huge success for equal access, or to conclude that it reflected the perilous state of the youth labour market (what else are you going to do?). On the other hand we could note that fees have had a negative effective on part-time and mature students. The more cautious of us might like to say that it is still a bit early to tell. It is certainly possible that over the longer term having a very expensive higher education system might impact negatively on equality of opportunity.

    However, this is the stuff of which higher education policy is made. It is a fair field for a debate and undoubtedly me and Nick will come down in somewhat different positions on it. However I think that there is something that I do need to take issue with: the implication that a career adviser’s political opinions necessarily shape the advice that they give.

    Of course we are all influenced by our political, moral and ethical opinions, but the way that this influences professional practice is complex. It is reasonable for example for a careers adviser to believe that higher education should be free, but it is impossible to advise young people on this basis. We can’t advise them to go back in time and access the system when it was free. We have to advise them to engage with the system as it currently exists. Careers advice, like politics, is the art of the possible. In fact much of the rationale for the existing of career guidance as part of public policy is the fact that helps individuals to make their way through sub-optimally organised systems.

    In other words, we may not like the way the system is organised, we may recognise that it is unfair, bureaucratic and inefficient, but through the provision of career support we help the individual to understand it, navigate it and prosper within it. Hopefully through doing this we make the world a little less unfair and a little more efficient.

  2. Interesting debate. Sounds like a great conference. Having the insight of working in careers guidance in higher ed as well as further and secondary ed. and being the parent of a 17 year old, I definitely think it is too early to say, certainly in terms of the traditional 18 year old applicant, though I do think the stats imply a fall in interest from mature applicants.

    It is fundamental to careers guidance practice to put your client first and that you would never impose political opinion, eg., lead clients interested in HE to think that there are too many financial barriers to attend, even if you are well aware of the structural and economic constraints student finance changes may present. Our role often is around helping individuals sort work-arounds for barriers to achieving career aspirations. Probably the best profession at keeping own political opinions under wraps at work.

    Nick, don’t make quick judgements about rounds of applause, but do take the opportunity to listen to this professional group who are in a unique position in terms of the insights they gain into the aspirations of potential higher education students. The 121 interactions they have with students gives them a great perspective.

  3. Arti Kumar says:

    Interesting comments! I cannot speak for all careers advisers but, from my own perspective and long experience of being involved in careers guidance and education, I think the ethics of the profession require us to impartially engage and enable students/clients to research and critically appreciate their world of available opportunities. But the main benefits arise from enabling individuals to identify, develop, articulate and demonstrate the strengths that arise from their interests, abilities and attitudes.

    Enabling students to build and promote these attributes is a process and therefore difficult to achieve in careers ‘advice’ – but it has long been my aim in career development modules or components of study integrated with subject curricula. I would love to see this process embedded in all programmes of study as it invariably enhances life-career confidence, motivation and self-opportunity and self-other awareness. In turn this helps participants generate, clarify or modify aspirations so that they become more realistic and can be implemented through specific, time-framed plans of action. This type of lateral thinking can then be applied in making specific decisions and applications, going through performance appraisals, and future career management,

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