Knowing the right people is more important for getting on in life than a university degree, according to young people

Our latest survey on behalf of the Sutton Trust, published on A-level results day, shows that young people think that knowing the right people and being confident are more important for getting on in life than going to university.

The author(s)

  • Emily Mason Public Affairs
  • Jane Stevens Public Affairs
  • Anna Tench Public Affairs
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Out of more than 2,000 11 – 16-year olds surveyed this year, over eight out of 10 (85%) said it’s important to be confident to ‘do well and get on in life’. Three quarters felt that having connections was crucial, with 75% saying that ‘knowing the right people’ is important for success in life.

However, just under two-thirds (65%) said they think it’s important to go to university. This has fallen from a high of 86% in 2013, with the proportion who feel that going to university is not important rising from just over one in ten (11%) in 2013 to two in ten (20%) in 2019.

The polling highlights how perceptions of the importance of university differ by social and ethnic background. University was deemed less important for young people from the least affluent families (61% compared with 67% in ‘high affluence’ households), and white pupils (62% compared with 75% of young people from a BME background).

The decline in young people’s perception of the importance of university may in part be down to a growing awareness of apprenticeships and other high-quality training routes. Almost two-thirds (64%) of young people said they’d be interested in doing an apprenticeship rather than going to university, if one was available for a job they wanted to do.

Despite this, three-quarters (77%) of young people think they’re likely to go on to higher education after school. This is a similar rate to the past few years, but slightly below the high of 81% in 2013. Aspirations around higher education also differ by social background. In 2019, 67% of pupils from the least affluent families thought they were likely to go into higher education, compared with 83% in ‘high affluence’ households.

Of the young people who said it was unlikely they would go into higher education, the most common set of reasons – given by 62% of those across England and Wales who are unlikely to attend – was they don’t like the idea or don’t enjoy learning or studying. 43% cited a financial reason, while 41% said that they weren’t clever enough or wouldn’t get good enough exam results to get in. 

Today’s polling also finds a small decline in doubts about the cost of going to university. Two-fifths (40%) of young people who are likely to go to university or who aren’t sure either way yet, are worried about the cost of higher education, down from 46% in 2018. However, financial concerns continue to be pronounced for young people from the least affluent families (50% compared with 32% in ‘high affluence’ households) and for girls over boys (44% vs 36%).

Technical note

  • The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 200 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  • Ipsos MORI interviewed 2,809 school children aged 11-16 in secondary schools (excluding special schools, fee-paying schools and sixth form college) in England and Wales. Pupils were selected from a random sample of schools, and self-completion questionnaires were completed online between February and May 2019. Data are weighted by school year, gender and region to match the profile of school children across England and Wales.
  • Pupils were grouped into high, medium or low family affluence scores based on their answers to six questions in the survey relating to the number of times they had been on holiday with their family in the last year, whether they have their own bedroom, the number of computers owned by their family, the number of cars, vans or trucks owned by their family, whether they have a dishwasher at home, and the number of bathrooms in their home. This categorisation is taken from the World Health Organisation’s Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children study.
  • Disadvantaged pupils are those who are eligible for Free School Meals.

The author(s)

  • Emily Mason Public Affairs
  • Jane Stevens Public Affairs
  • Anna Tench Public Affairs

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