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.