Why HE: the reasons those from under-represented backgrounds choose university-level study


In a previous post, I considered the reasons level 3 students at a further education (FE) college in the English East Midlands gave for not wanting to pursue higher-level study (Raven, 2022a). Higher education (HE) progression from FE colleges has received an increasing amount of attention in recent years, including from the Government funded Uni Connect programme (Office for Students, 2021). However, whilst they provide advanced level programmes to thousands of students across the country, FE colleges generally return progression rates that are lower than those recorded by school sixth forms. Moreover, those studying at FE colleges are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds (Baldwin et al. 2020).


Arguably, gathering the learner perspective is crucial if efforts to widen access amongst these students are to prove effective. Whilst this applies to appreciating their reasons for not wanting to pursue HE, it also concerns better understanding the motivations voiced by others for choosing to opt for university-level study following the completion of their level 3 college courses. Accordingly, the two small studies referenced in my previous article also gathered the insights of those who were planning to embark on HE programmes (Raven 2021 and 2022b). In both studies, focus groups were used to gather the student perspective.


Although they came from four very different applied (vocational) subject areas, the emphasis amongst those intending to progress was what would be gained from a higher-level qualification. ‘I am more likely to get a better job that pays more if I go to uni’, one focus group member observed. A similar assessment was made by others, with one participant noting that ‘I am going to university because a better qualification means probably a better job.’ Moreover, it was added, ‘I am confident I can get a job after university because [the skills gained are] sought-after.’ In addition, various focus group members talked about the enhanced qualify of life associated with a graduate career. ‘I have seen what I can get if I work hard’, one participant noted. This, it was added, includes ‘a nice car [and] a nice house. It makes me motivated – having money for all the things I want in life.’ Similarly, another focus group member observed that if ‘you go to uni [and] get decent grades, you can get a decent job, and then you can lead a decent life, rather than having to struggle for money every day, [and having to] work for more hours than you should.’


Although in some of the conversations reference was also made to the ‘big opportunity’ that going to university, and of ‘living that life’, could offer, this appeared to be a rather less widely expressed motivator, as did an enthusiasm for the subjects that participants were intending to pursue. Indeed, the emphasis on the material consequences of HE seems consistent with the views expressed by their counterpart who had decided against HE. Their reasoning appeared to be primarily based upon doubts about the economic gains arising from a university education, especially once the resulting debts had been taken into account. These finding may reflect the modest scale of the study and the extent to which one-hour focus group discussions can draw out detailed and nuanced insights. However, they may also suggest the value of outreach support provided by – and to – FE college students that considers the wider social benefits of pursuing a higher education. It would be very interesting to hear what others think. Do these findings resonate with your experiences, what interventions could address these challenges and who would it be best for students to hear from? Or should we perhaps focus on the material costs and benefits of HE, rather than be concerned with what some might consider to be the less important and less tangible social and cultural aspects of the HE experience?

Blog by Dr Neil Raven Photo by Vladislav Babienko


Raven. N. 2021. Realising ambitions. Supporting the HE progression of level 3 college students, unpublished report, Shire Grant Community Grant, Leicestershire County Council. Raven. N. 2022a. ‘Why not HE: the reasons those from under-represented backgrounds decide against university’, FACE e-bulletin, October, https://www.face.ac.uk/blog-post/why-not-he-the-reasons-those-from-under-represented-backgrounds-decide-against-university/. Raven. N. 2022. Realising ambitions 2. Supporting the HE progression of level 3 college students. Findings from a follow-up study, unpublished report, Shire Grant Community Grant, Leicestershire County Council. Office for Students. 2021. Uni Connect. Phase three guidance for 2021-22, https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/2a73c06c-a2ec-47dd-b0ab-ba8aeb94c0de/uni-connect-phase-3-guidance-updated-oct-2021.pdf. Tagged choicesfocus groupfurther educationvocational education
Scroll to Top