Why not HE: the reasons those from under-represented backgrounds decide against university

Image By: Sam Boyle
Efforts to widen higher education access have tended to focus on the provision of information and support to those from under-represented backgrounds. This is perfectly understandable given the deep inequalities in HE progression rates that persist (GOV.UK. 2022a and 2022b). However, such a focus can mean that insufficient attention is given to the student voice, and to listening to what they have to say.*


The opportunity to do just this was presented in two small research projects I recently worked on. In both instances, the principal aim was to better understand the challenges to HE progression faced by those on advanced level applied and professional courses (including BTECs) at a Midlands based further education (FE) college. For context, progression rates are generally lower from FE colleges than sixth forms. Moreover, compared with their A-level counterparts, a noticeably smaller proportion of those on what are sometimes referred to as ‘vocational courses’ go onto higher-level study (Baldwin et al. 2020). Focus groups were used to capture the student voice. All participants were in the final year of their level 3 programmes and on courses that would qualify them for university entry, if they chose this option. Whilst the discussions addressed the main focus of the research, they also provided an opportunity to explore the reasons why some members in each of the subject areas had decided against HE.


As would perhaps be expected, a number of the reasons offered related to factors that were pushing them away from HE as an option. They included concerns over the cost of university-level study. These were not confined to the initial outlay (including student fees) but also to the implications. ‘You are’, it was argued, going to ‘get into debt’ if you chose HE. Also referenced was the potential time and effort involved in ‘sort[ing] out student finances and funds’, as well as the strains that would be placed on their social networks. You will, it was observed, be ‘away from friends and family.’ In addition, focus group members talked about the associated workloads. ‘It is the effort’ of doing assignments, one participant noted and, it was added, ‘you get loads of them at university.’ Whilst for one group in particular reference was made (correctly) to there being no obvious, or direct higher-level qualifications they could go onto. ‘There is not a natural overarching progression’, it was observed. However, whilst they expressed reservations about HE, an equal if not greater emphasis was placed on the attractions (the pull) of their non-HE choices. Those planning on employment talked about the appeal of ‘getting a job’ and wanting to leave full-time education behind. ‘Now I feel like I just want to be in work’, one participant noted. There was also the prospect of ‘earning money’ and the chance to ‘feel more independent’ and to ‘leave the rules behind and progress my life under my set of conditions.’ Some also observed that for their chosen sector and career ambitions a level 3 qualification was sufficient to offer a number of options, including setting up their own business.

Implications and interpretations

One key observation emerges from these two studies. In almost every case, the decision not to pursue full-time higher education did not mean abandoning the idea of further training. Instead, reference was made to the attractions of securing an apprenticeship, including the opportunity this pathway presented for ‘learning on the job and getting paid.’ Participants also talked about other work-based training opportunities, including specific job-related schemes offered (and paid for) by employers. For some who were already in part-time work, these related to their current employers. In other words, these students were interested in advancing their education on terms that met their needs and interests, including in relation to how, where and when training would take place, and what it would entail. More research is needed but these findings suggest that if we are to widen access in the transformative way that the Office for Students (2020), as the HE regulator for England, has alluded to, then perhaps the sector needs to respond to what those it seeks to recruit want, rather than expect students to be the ones adapting.

Article By: Dr Neil Raven


Baldwin, J., N. Raven and R. Weber-Jones, 2020, ‘Access ‘Cinderellas’: further education colleges as engines of transformational change’, in S. Broadhead, J. Butcher, E. Davison, W. Fowle, M Hill, L. Martin, S. Mckendry, F. Norton, N. Raven, B. Sanderson and S. Wynn Williams (eds). Delivering the Public Good of Higher Education: Widening Participation, Place and Lifelong Learning, London: Forum for Access and Continuing Education, 107-126. GOV. UK. 2022a. Academic year 2020/21. Widening participation in higher education, https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/widening-participation-in-higher-education. GOV. UK. 2022b. ‘Free school meals – gap’ from widening participation in higher education’, https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/data-tables/permalink/fdadb846-2cc2-4bb5-a8fb-9c7dc1ece5bd. Office for Students. 2020. Transforming opportunity in higher education An analysis of 2020-21 to 2024-25 access and participation plans, https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/2efcda44-8715-4888-8d63-42c0fd6a31af/transforming-opportunity-in-higher-education.pdf * This article is based on a on longer opinion piece published by the Society for Research into Higher Education. It can be found at: https://srheblog.com/2022/09/21/why-not-he-the-reasons-those-from-under-represented-backgrounds-decide-against-university/.
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