Who’s influencing young people’s university decisions?
  • November 26, 2018

Who’s influencing young people’s university decisions?

Whilst the prospective student remains the primary target audience for university recruitment strategies, more institutions are now actively targeting other influencers too.

In late 2017 we ran our first University Futures collaboration with 10 universities from across the UK, generating fresh insights into how children and young people from the ages of 6 to 18 view, and make, decisions about university.

Ahead of the release of the summary report in December 2018, I wanted to share some of our insights into the role of two key influencers of young people: schools and family.

Schools and teachers matter!

Schools and teachers impact significantly on children and young people’s knowledge and expectations about the purpose, value and appeal of going to university.

Our research showed that as children progress through the year groups the influence of the school on children’s thinking and understanding of higher education increases

Influence levels rise from 48% of those in Years 7 to 9 citing teachers as a source of information about university, compared to 55% of Year 10 and 11s, peaking with 63% of Year 12 and 13s.

In addition, over half (51%) of 12- to 18-year-olds who said they had visited a university said they’d made the visit with school.

Alongside practical advice and guidance, schools and teachers play an important role in shaping young people’s attitudes.

Ideas about predetermined academic ability, received or reinforced in school, can stimulate or hinder children’s belief in their ability to get into, and succeed at, university.

Our study found that positive experiences of school, and the perception that you are doing well at school, are strongly associated with university aspiration.

With teachers having such an influence on young people, we decided our next University Futures research collaboration ‘Teachers as influencers of university ambition’ should focus exclusively on this important group. This research opportunity will provide valuable fresh evidence to enable recruitment and widening participation teams to work even more effectively with teachers – with the ambition of  ensuring that all prospective students are able to find the right course at the right university for them.

This next collaboration will be starting soon so take a look here if you’re interested in finding out more about Teachers as influencers.

Parents shape aspirations

My mum thinks that university is the be all and end all. She thinks that if you go to university, you succeed in life

Miriam, aged 16

Whilst teacher influence is important amongst teenagers, family members are overwhelmingly the main source of information about university amongst the 6- to 11-year-olds in our study.

Parents and family members exert an influence on their child’s university aspirations in a number of ways including: being a source of information and guidance about university, by modelling behaviour based on their own educational experiences, and by exposing their child to their positive expectations about the likelihood of them going to university.

It’s more common for parents to shape applicants’ preferences through advice, guidance, and subconscious messages rather than directly influencing specific choices (1). For example, parents will often provide their child with a sense of a higher education hierarchy in terms of which institutions and courses are better regarded (2).

It is possible that this sense of hierarchy will stop a prospective student from even considering some universities, let alone visit an open day.

Parental expectations are decisive when it comes to university aspiration and were found to be directly correlated with the university aspiration of children and young people in our study.

Those 12- to 15-year-olds whose parents said they expected their child to apply to university were 10 times as likely to say they wanted to go to university as those whose parent said they did not expect their child to apply.

So, whilst practical plans for engaging with parents are useful, understanding and influencing the more complex, indirect influences throughout childhood and adolescence are perhaps where the real opportunities lie for universities to meaningfully engage with parents.

Our current collaboration ‘Parents as influencers of university ambition’ is seeking to better understand the thoughts, needs and behaviours of this important group and, in turn, help universities to develop strategies to support parents in helping them guide their child to make the right choices for their future. The public research summary will be available in early 2019.

If you’re interested in knowing more about any of our work, and how your university can get involved, please use our contact us page, call us on 0161 503 5760 or email sharon.steele@alterline.co.uk

  1. Diamond, A., Vorley, T., Roberts, J., & Jones, S. (2012). Behavioural Approaches to Understanding Student Choice.
  2. Brooks, R. (2003). Young People’s Higher Education Choices: The role of family and friends. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 24(3), 283–297