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Seeing to it that students have ample careers advice

Submitted by on 22 Nov 2010 – 16:38

Photo: BIS

By David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science

Lord Browne’s report on the financing of higher education is due this autumn. The coalition has said its conclusions will be assessed against clear criteria, including the impact on the quality of university teaching, on social mobility and on the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. But to succeed in these areas, we don’t just need to reform university finance. We also need to ensure prospective students have access to a different class of information about their options.

One of the lost opportunities of the last Government was their approach to advice for young people considering their future options. As Alan Milburn’s report on Access to the Professions showed, high-quality, professional and independent careers advice was under-rated. As a result, many young people have been forced to take key life decisions – such as which A-Levels to study or which universities to apply for or whether to consider an apprenticeship – in the dark. That is a tremendous waste of human potential.

Without the right information, one might assume that Law A-Level was an excellent way to prepare for a Law degree or that Business Studies could help you study Economics at a leading university. But that would be the wrong conclusion to draw. I was particularly struck by the story of Emily Cummins. She invented a fridge that stores things at just the right temperature without electricity, for which she rightly won a Female Innovator of the Year award. But Emily was unable to read Engineering at university because no one told her which A-Levels she would need. People like Emily succeed despite – not because of – the advice she received.

Many other young people perform well at school but are not told that different universities offer different career paths and life chances. According to a recent MORI poll for the Sutton Trust, just 18% of secondary school pupils think it matters which institution your degree is from. Given the debts that university students accrue, this is unacceptable, but it helps to explain the scale of the challenge in promoting fair access to our research-intensive universities.

I want our universities to become more transparent about what they offer. As an urgent first step, I have asked all higher education institutions to publish employability statements if they wish to receive public money. These will soon be available online and will summarise what different universities offer their students to help them become job ready. Many universities already provide excellent information about what their students can expect – I think, for example, of Liverpool John Moores World of Work programme – but these new statements will set a minimum standard across the board.

I also want better information to be available on the student experience and I am working with HEFCE and UCAS to make sure potential students have access to the information they themselves say they want. Often, this is already collected but it tends not to be published in student-friendly or easy-to-find formats. I want all prospective students to know what a course contains, what it costs, whether previous students were satisfied, and where it will lead. That information should be easily available from a central source, and comparable across different institutions.

Better information is not just about encouraging more people from poorer backgrounds to our elite universities. It must also mean better matching of people to courses across the whole spectrum of skills and qualifications. If anything, robust information about apprenticeships is even harder to come by than it is for universities and that needs to be tackled too. That is why my colleague, John Hayes, and I are currently working up plans for a big improvement in careers advice for people of all ages.

I am determined to drive this agenda through because it is a win-win situation. The benefits for young people are perhaps obvious. But universities stand to gain too if their new students arrive having made better-informed decisions than earlier generations – they have no need to be bashful as they often have a good story to tell. And employers and taxpayers will benefit if more people feel fulfilled in their studies, fewer people drop out early and there is a better fit between individuals and the qualifications they hold.