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Catch up on today’s webinar about applicants to higher education

  • 11 July 2023

The 2023 Unite Students Applicants Survey was published last week. Earlier today, HEPI hosted a webinar with Unite Students on the findings of the Survey, which cover finance, wellbeing and resilience among many other issues.

The webinar featured Jenny Shaw (Unite Students), Laura McInerney (Teacher Tapp), Sam Bronheim (University of Manchester Students’ Union) and Professor Nona McDuff OBE (London Metropolitan University) and was chaired by Nick Hillman (HEPI). It can be watched below.

Nick Hillman’s Foreword to the Survey is reproduced below.

When I was a classroom teacher, one of hardest things I had to do was prepare pupils for higher education. At the time, there was very little useful and accessible information available.

In the intervening decades, this has gradually changed, with more student surveys and other forms of data being produced, and often made available for free and online. However, different people need different information and there are now over three-quarters of a million higher education applicants each year.

Despite the growth in participation, many groups are still severely underrepresented among the undergraduate population – such as those from disadvantaged households, those with experience of care (who have, rightly, been a key focus of the Unite Foundation) and those from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities (as explained in a recent HEPI report). The pages that follow reveal in particular how people from these communities could be supported better.

Continuing improvements in access among these groups, combined with an overall increase in qualified young people, mean UCAS now expect to see one million applicants by 2030. Our work at HEPI looks further ahead, suggesting we could have an additional 350,000 full-time first-year students in England alone by 2035. If the exciting opportunities offered by the new Lifelong Loan are rolled out in such a way that the policy meets its full potential, there will be more part-time, mature and lifelong learners too. They will also need good information, suitable preparation and better support.

Moreover, the higher education sector is always changing, with institutions shifting shape and focus, new disciplinary areas taking off while others decline and growing interest in interdisciplinary work. So even if the backgrounds of people applying were not becoming more diverse, there would still be a big job to do in making sure applicants and those who advise them – such as teachers, parents and careers advisers – had up-to-date and relevant information.

The annual HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey confirms that, after enrolment, 6-in-10 students say they would choose the same course and university again. While this is positive, it means 4-in-10 students say they might have opted for something else. Some people will doubtless always change their minds after they have enrolled, as they mature or have their eyes opened to other opportunities. But applying careful thought to the emerging information about applicants could reduce the likelihood of people making the wrong choices solely because they had insufficient information, which can be stressful, time-wasting and expensive.

The present generation of school and college learners have faced unprecedented challenges. The mental health of young people had taken a big knock even before the shock of the pandemic and it only worsened during the crisis. It has not been a good time to be a young person. So it is pleasing to see there has been no further deterioration in mental health this year. Yet while educational institutions and many learners have proved remarkably resilient, the pandemic will leave an adverse impact behind on some people’s lives for many years to come.

Because of COVID, most of this year’s A-Level and BTEC candidates have never taken a public examination before, for their GCSE examinations were replaced by Teacher-Assessed Grades. As they wait for their grades, no one seems absolutely certain whether the results will move back to pre-pandemic norms (despite what policymakers might say).

So there is greater uncertainty than usual for applicants – and also, incidentally, for higher education institutions trying to match applicants to places as best they can.

It is for all these reasons that I am a strong supporter of this Unite Students annual applicants’ survey. Before the survey existed, there was – amazingly – no regular stocktake of the views of those on their way to higher education. The following pages show clearly why the exercise is so important. No cohort of entrants is the same. Different groups have different expectations before enrolling in higher education and different experiences afterwards. So key indicators change each year.

For many students, higher education is a key transition point in their lives and part of the shift to independent adulthood, so it will never be an entirely smooth journey for all involved. Nonetheless, knowing what applicants think about higher education before they matriculate is incredibly useful, irrespective of whether they each have an accurate picture or one with blurry edges.

Finally, it is worth noting that this annual survey from Unite Students is part of a wider stream of work aimed at helping applicants directly and bolstering institutions’ understanding of how applicants change over time. Unite Students have separately produced materials under The Leap banner that help people make the transition from the compulsory phase of education to the voluntary stage after the age of 18. At HEPI, we have also produced our own resources for use by Year 12 and Year 13 students – these are freely available on our website as well as on our YouTube channel. Such information provides a vital resource for those who want to know what being a student at a UK university is really like as we approach the second quarter of the twenty-first century.

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