Choice decisions

Making the right choice is difficult at the best of times. But when what you are choosing could make a huge difference to the rest of your life it is important that choice is well-informed.

Yet new polling for the Office for Students today suggests that young people turn as much to parents, friends and relatives for guidance on what they do after school as they do to potentially more objective information sources.

According to the YouthSight poll of 2,119 students, 71% of prospective students and 58% of current and recent students cite their parents when asked who they turn to for advice on higher education choices. Teachers and peers are also a major source of advice.

Many also turn to a range of websites, with 60% of applicants and 63% of current or recent students saying they look at them to help with choices. But other research for OfS published today from CFE Research suggests that potential applicants find it hard to process the huge range of information and advice on offer. As the researchers put it: “There are limits to the amount of information processing that people can undertake.”

That presents a challenge for policymakers at a time when there has never been more data available to help students make those choices: providing information responsibly and well as accessibly.

Through the Unistats site, for example, students and their advisers can see data from the National Student Survey, which has since 2005 provided the views of final year undergraduates on the quality of their courses, universities and colleges; with the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework they can see information about the quality of teaching at an institutional – and soon, at subject – level; and through Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) and Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data they can see increasingly detailed data about their likely average earnings post-graduation and information about job outcomes.

Unistats and other websites also provide plenty more information designed to help students decide. Many students will also visit university or college websites too, and a recent Which? report highlighted concerns that these sites – which are inevitably marketing tools – sometimes stray into the realms of exaggeration when they quote suspiciously high league table rankings. As they are subject to advertising and consumer protection law, they are required to be honest in any such claims.

Even so, university or college sites individually will not provide the broader picture that allows students to make fair comparisons. The strength of Unistats is that it provides official data that has been collected to the standard expected of government statistics. But simply seeing dry data isn’t enough: its sheer complexity can be offputting without some curation.

That’s why we’re now looking at options for replacing Unistats – which is supported by all four UK nations – with something that could be more personalised, guiding would-be students and their teachers or parents through the complex higher education landscape – and the growing alternative routes such as apprenticeships – while continuing to ensure they can access detailed data on individual universities, colleges or courses.

With parents and teachers playing such a crucial role in their decision-making process, we need to think about how to help them become better informed too. Otherwise there are two dangers. The first is that the information is both subjective and out-dated, limiting potential choice. The second is that the information gap that already exists for disadvantaged students is perpetuated and widened. Poor access to information leads to poor decision-making, and sub-optimal choices. Moreover, there are also gaps in information for mature students and others who are underrepresented in higher education.

There is some dispute about who first used the phrase ‘Knowledge is Power’. Whoever coined it – Hobbes and Bacon are both said to have done so - there is no doubt that even in the age of Google its truth resonates today. Our challenge is to ensure that information is accessible and comprehensible enough to enable an informed choice.


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