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What should we be telling A level students about university?

  • 12 August 2019

This week students across the country will receive their A level results, finding out whether they have secured their place at university. Even if students haven’t quite made their grades, they are in a particularly strong position to negotiate with their chosen university, due to demographic changes. The number of 18 year olds in the English population is at one of the lowest levels in recent years, meaning universities are recruiting from a much smaller pool. This, combined with the removal of student number caps, makes this year (as it has been for the last few years) a buyer’s market for students coming into higher education.

Much of the focus around this time of year is on where students have gone to study, or what courses are being recruited from. However, this is only one aspect of the student experience. For many students the move to university will be their first time living independently. Back in 2017, HEPI and Unite Students published a report looking in detail at the areas of the student experience that prove to be a mismatch with applicant’s expectations of higher education. I still frequently refer to this research when talking about the challenges faced in higher education and evidence from this year’s HEPI/AdvanceHE Student Academic Experience survey continues to show that a very low number of students (11%) find their experience matched their expectations. This isn’t necessarily a bad news story – going to university is often a transformative experience, and similarly low numbers say their experience was worse than expected (13%).  

However, there are a number of areas where we should be better informing students before they leave for university.

Expectations of costs

The Reality Check survey found students had little understanding of living costs, with less than half of students recognising that their biggest spend would be on accommodation. Given the NUS/Unipol Accommodation Costs Survey published at the end of last year found that university rent now accounts for 73% of the maximum amount of loan available to students, this mismatch between expectation and reality clearly needs to be addressed.

Expectations of contact time

In order to understand student’s views on contact time, we asked applicants for their expectations and cross-referenced that with what students’ experience. In most cases, these were closely aligned: applicants thought they would get more one-on-one support which students reported they did, and applicants had some expectation of the level of independent study they would be required to do. However, there was a significant mis-match in the amount of time applicants expected to spend in lectures, with most (60%) under the impression there would be increased lecture time when compared with the time they spent in the classroom during their school career. Only 19% of students said this was their experience. This suggests we should be better informing applicants about how they will be spending their time at university, in order to set realistic expectations.  

Expectations of mental health support

When applicants were asked whether they would be happy for their university to contact their parent or guardian if they were worried about their mental health, almost three quarters of applicants said they would be. However, as students are adults at 18, universities are not able to make contact with their parents unless they have the explicit permission of the student. It is critical that students, who are open to sharing this information, are made aware of these limitations and are given the opportunity to opt-in to this service, something many universities are starting to do.  


Some have questioned whether this open attitude to disclosure will change once applicants get to university and living away from their parents. However, when we asked this question in the 2019 Student Academic Experience Survey, students were even more strongly in favour, with 84% of students saying they would be happy for their parent or guardian to be contacted. 

Clearly it is vital that students getting their results this week make the most informed decision they can on their course and university.  As well as information about league tables and student satisfaction rates, this should include an understanding of the critical issues, such as mental health support, to ensure their expectations meet reality.

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