- This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Sarra Jenkins, Director of Future Pathways at Loughborough Grammar School.
I was delivering training to teaching staff this week about the perils and pitfalls of predicted grades. When I gave a statistic about the number of our students that were placed at first or insurance choice university despite missing grades, a colleague thoughtfully asked, ‘but are they happy and succeeding there?’
This is a question I spend a lot of time on with my students – ‘where will you be happy and “fit”?’ With drop-out rates at the highest recorded level and only 16% of students saying university was exactly what they expected, how do we ensure that students make the very best decisions when choosing their university and course?
In the UCAS last cycle, Joe* arrived at my office door for what was becoming an almost daily chat about this decision. He was a superb student of Economics, was predicted three A grades at A Level and had gained five offers for a degree in Accounting and Finance. He had his heart set on going to Lancaster University for which he had an offer of BBB. We had discussed the ways in which this really suited him as an individual – the course, the campus, the community, the location, and much more besides.
But then he received an offer from the University of Birmingham.
What caused Joe such angst that he came to see me each day? The offer from Birmingham was AAA. He felt that this perhaps meant that it must be a better university? Or maybe it was a better, more competitive course? Or maybe he was selling himself short by accepting a lower offer? Despite all the research and knowledge this student had, this offer had thrown him into turmoil.
The 2023 Student Academic Experience Survey suggests that 9% of students say they would have picked a different university, 7% would have picked a different course, and 6% would have picked both a different university and course. These numbers appear small, but in my cohort of 128 applicants this year, this would represent 28 students feeling this way. This is equivalent to more than a whole class of students, and a number that is galling as a university counsellor. Statistics often hide the real people behind them.
For many students, choosing a university and course is the first big decision in their life over which they have real agency. Choosing GCSEs, and post-16 options can be stressful, but a university decision can mean moving halfway across the country and taking on considerable financial debt.
So how can we ensure students make the right decision for them to avoid them becoming one of these statistics? I would encourage students always to consider their ‘best fit’ rather than simply choosing a university and a course; this is a rather American approach to HE advising, but it has proven immensely valuable to my students in making the right decision for them.
- Location: Where would you like to be in the country? How far from your family and school friends are you comfortable to be? How will you get home if you need to?
- Campus: What kind of university campus would you like? Do you want an enclosed small campus with a close-knit community, or would you prefer a city university that is more sprawling?
- Accommodation: Where is it in relation to the university? How many years is it guaranteed for and what is the cost? Is it small, shared flats, or is it more like a hotel with shared facilities?
- Course: How is the course structured? What optional modules are available in second and third year? Can you take subject options beyond your course? How many contact hours will you have?
- Assessment:How is the course assessed? Some students excel in exams, others in coursework, presentations, or projects. Some universities, like Manchester Metropolitan are superb at listing the percentages of exams and coursework in their degrees. For other universities this is much harder to find, but it would make a great question for open days.
- Support: What support services are available – pastoral and academic? What is the support for careers and progression?
- Activities What clubs and societies are available? These can help forge friendships and ‘belonging’ and reduce loneliness, yet the cost-of-living crisis has seen an increase in the number of students working alongside their degree and a decrease in spending on activities.
- Opportunity: Can you take a placement term/year? Or study abroad? Are there local businesses that might have internship opportunities?
This is not exhaustive of course but does represent great start to trying to find the right ‘fit’ for each student.
There are challenges to the effectiveness of this approach. Students, and especially parents, can get hung up on league tables without full knowledge of the range of league tables that exist, the varying metrics used to compile them, or their limitations. University websites are often quite vague on their course pages, especially about how courses are assessed, what the expected workload is, what the contact hours are. Financial considerations are also important, and the affordability of a city may affect where a student can attend.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is the time it takes to have these conversations with students, who of course have other things to do like their A Level homework or an all-important lunchtime sports fixture on the field! For those who do engage however, it has been delightful to hear about the enjoyment they are having in their undergraduate degree when they’ve gotten back in touch after leaving school.
After many conversations, Joe did accept a place at Lancaster and has never looked back.