Should I do a degree? What subject should I study? Where should I study it?
For many people these are some of the most important decisions they ever make. These decisions shape careers and affect how much you earn. They can determine who your friends are or even, if you’re like me, who you marry.
But we don’t all approach these decisions with the same level of knowledge and we don’t all have access to the same advice and guidance. As our UK review of information about higher education has shown, the choices facing university applicants are wide and complex. Prospective students typically rely heavily on family, friends and their school or college for advice and guidance and those with limited family experience or narrower social circles are likely to be at a disadvantage.
So we shouldn’t expect everyone to make a choice with which they are equally happy and it’s therefore no surprise that our recent research shows that satisfaction with these choices does indeed vary.
The biennial survey of graduates forty months after they qualified asks how likely they would be to make a different choice if they could choose again now. Our report analyses the responses of 36,000 English graduates from full-time undergraduate (first) degrees in 2010-11.
The headline is that most graduates wouldn’t want to choose differently. However, a sizable minority say they would be likely or very likely to choose differently. Just under a third (32 percent) say that they would be likely to choose a different subject, while only one in five (21 percent) would consider a different institution.
The striking finding though is that black and minority ethnic (BME) graduates are much more likely than white students to say they would choose differently. For example, 36 per cent of Black African graduates say they would be likely or very likely to do something completely different, whereas only 19 per cent of white graduates would.
Even controlling for other factors, such as entry qualifications, the differences between ethnicities remain. The proportion of Pakistani and Bangladeshi graduates likely to choose something completely different is 14 percentage points higher than white graduates, while Chinese graduates are 9 percentage points more likely than white graduates to choose a different institution.
Over recent years, HEFCE has produced a large body of research that has shown that students from ethnic minorities are more likely to drop out, less likely to get first and upper second class degrees and less likely to find professional employment.
Better choices will lead to better outcomes and if a university education is to be an effective means of social mobility then it’s important that the match between student and course is the right one.
It may be that, on average, it is harder for BME students to find the right match. Previous research has suggested that the experiences of these students can be affected by factors such as non-inclusive curricula, a feeling of not ‘belonging’, and different social and cultural capitals.
The graduates analysed here made their choices almost ten years ago. Since then, there have been many changes to improve the provision of information, advice and guidance to prospective students and to reduce barriers to student success, but higher tuition fees have also increased the stakes.
Recent developments are intended to help further. The most recent Catalyst Fund call is to address barriers to success, changes to Quality Assessment increase the focus on student outcomes and, of course, the TEF is intended to improve the evidence for student choices.
These kinds of measures, coupled with those being made to student information through the recent UK wide review, will be crucial to successfully address the disparities evidenced by our research.