Graduate market trends - Winter 09/10 : Futuretrack stage 2

Being a full-time undergraduate in the UK - mapping differences in student experiences and opportunities


This article provides some headline findings from the Futuretrack Stage 2 survey report, analysing data provided a little over a year after the UCAS 2006 applicants had completed the first longitudinal survey. Focusing on those who went on to full-time study in UK HEIs, Kate Purcell summarises some of the evidence about key variables that affect student experience and the extent to which they are faced by opportunities and obstacles.


Much media coverage of the issues related to UK higher education (HE) expansion and participation makes the assumption that HE is a relatively uniform commodity. It is recognised that there are differences in the experience of being a student, depending on what is studied and where, but ultimately, the relative value of different courses can be compared and rated relative to one another in terms of usefulness, or returns, to individuals and to the economy as a whole. But HE is, in fact, remarkably heterogeneous in terms of subjects studied, the skills and knowledge on offer, learning structures and the conditions in which learning is undertaken.

This is largely forgotten in the headline league-table comparisons. Reliable evidence is in short supply and media debate often partial or biased. It was clear from the findings of the Futuretrack Stage 1 survey that applicants had widely different access to information and guidance prior to their choices and many felt they had needed more. This article presents a taste of the findings about the experiences of students who responded to Futuretrack Stage 2 survey who went on to be offered and accept full-time places in UK HE. They cover the full spectrum of full-time undergraduate courses of study and types of HE institutions (HEIs) where they studied.

Higher education expansion and the Futuretrack 2006 cohort

The expansion of HE has had a significant impact on the composition of the student population. True, socio-economic disadvantage and educational disadvantage continue to be closely correlated, particularly at both ends of the opportunity scale, with few refugees from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds among the school-leavers applying for university and a remarkably higher proportion of those from the most privileged social and economic backgrounds among those who had obtained places at the most elite and highly-competitive institutions. However, just under half of students came from backgrounds where parents had no experience of HE.

This reflects changing job entry qualifications and a very different labour market and structure of opportunity to that encountered by their parents. But does it ultimately reflect progress, growth, better life chances and the likelihood that higher proportions of the workforce will have satisfying employment that allows them to reach their potential? In the increasingly diverse UK HE, what everybody wants to know is which course is the best bet? What kinds of degree lead to the best opportunities? And employers want to know which produce the most useful graduates.

The very clear answer is “It depends what you want”. Like money, all education has a value that can be reduced to what it enables the holder to use it for, in actual and metaphorical markets: for goods, for services markets, to access labour markets and other opportunities or advantages. Like money, it is a currency that can be traded – but there need to be opportunities to ‘cash it in’, exchange it for a different currency more appropriate to the situation, or invest it. However, unlike money, it also has immediate and long-term intrinsic value. All the graduate follow-up studies conducted in the last two decades (e.g. Purcell et al 2005) have found that a very small minority of graduates regret having completed HE or would have chosen to study very different courses, even where they subsequently found it difficult to gain exactly the kind of job they wanted. If it is of any value at all, once you have it, it affects how clearly you can see and understand at least some aspects of the world, which has a cumulative impact. It is like a drug that goes on affecting the person long after it has been administered – and it may have unanticipated side-effects.

Making sense of diversity

The first rule of assessing the value and quality of HE then is to assess its impact as individuals study and as they complete their courses. This assessment has to include intrinsic and longer term impact as well as simply financial returns, and take account of where they had started from, and the context in which they experienced being full-time students. We had prior information about most of the UK-domiciled 2006 applicants’ socio-economic background, type of school attended, and the educational entry qualifications they had. We also had other information such as age, gender, ethnicity and the region where they had lived when they had applied to study. These variables had a systematic impact on the choices made by members of the cohort, and although some categories of applicant were clearly more restricted than others by some of these, the strongest relationships were in terms of socio-economic background and prior educational achievements.

We constructed a new ranking of HEIs for more effective analysis of the relationship between higher education (HE) and opportunity and to do this, we used average tariff points required for entry to a specific HEI. Applicants have various options open to them when they consider entering HE and the most significant determinant of these options was entry qualifications. Regardless of the HEI they ultimately choose to attend, applicants with higher tariff points normally have a wider range of options available to them than a candidate with lower tariff points. Subjects and disciplines are also very important, as more detailed analysis shows, and each discipline and subject has more and less difficult-to-access HEI courses, but this applies whatever the levels and subject areas in which applicants competed for places. Prior educational qualifications and the type of school attended are closely related to socio-economic background, so it is not surprising that we found a strong correlation between the type of HEI attended, according to the access tariff classification, and socio-economic backgrounds, as Figure 1 shows.

Figure 1 Type of HEI attended by broad socio-economic background

Type of HEI attended by broad socio-economic background

The questions are, how far does the type of HEI attended determine the quality of learning experience that is experienced, in terms of the needs and abilities of the students, and how far does completing the particular course accessed provide or restrict opportunities to the students? The responses given under a range of headings in Figure 2 show that experiences and evaluations were diverse.

Figure 2 Extent of agreement with statements about student experiences in the academic year 2006-07

Extent of agreement with statements about student experiences in the academic year 2006-07

Satisfaction with HE

Most students were content with the tuition and learning support they received on their course and with the HEI environment in terms of access to library resources and web-based facilities, although a small but significant proportion of students reported negative experiences. There was a wide range of assessments of the required workload, feedback given and contact with academic staff, according to courses studied, as has been found in other recent investigations (e.g. Bekhradnia et al. 2009). Workload varied by subject and discipline, but also, within these, by the type of HEI attended. The range of coursework experiences highlights the heterogeneity of undergraduate education, including time spent in a very wide range of teaching locations that as well as lecture and seminar rooms, laboratories and studios included an enormous range of workplace environments, public institutions and outdoor contexts. Figure 3 shows the average total workload by broad subject, comparing within each category the balance between hours spent in time-tabled taught or supervised activities such as lectures, seminars, laboratory, studio or workshop classes and individual study.

Figure 3 Average total workload (mean) by subject

Average total workload (mean) by subject

Students at highest tariff universities and general HE colleges were more likely than those at other types of HEI to say that the standard of work and their workload was higher than they had expected. Over the full range of criteria investigated higher tariff HEIs did not uniformly receive higher ratings by students, but in some cases, the greater cumulative investment of these institutions showed – as in the assessed quality of library resources and web-based facilities where there was a clear correlation between agreement with 8-10 per cent more students at the highest tariff universities agreeing with the statement than at the lower tariff ones, and with the statement ‘I had sufficient access to web-based facilities’, while over a quarter of those at the lower tariff universities agreed that ‘Library resources were inadequate’ compared to only 10per cent of those at the highest tariff HEIs. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to have been surprised by the standard of work required of them and in addition, this was true of students who had gone straight to HE from secondary education as a whole.

‘As this is my first year and the marks do not count towards my final degree I have not put much effort into my studies.’

(Female, 26 and over, Social Studies, Medium Tariff University)

‘Barely required to work at all!’

(Female, 26 and over, Subjects allied to Medicine, Lower Tariff University)

‘I expected to be pushed hard, and I am. The course is as hard as I want it to be.’

(Male, 21-25, Creative Arts & Design, Medium Tariff University)

‘(Standards were) Not quite higher than I expected, but I expected there to be more support especially with the first assignment, to clarify the standard.’

(Female, 26 and over, Subjects allied to Medicine, High Tariff University)

‘I worked very hard in the assignments and lectures were great- but not enough for my £3000 per year!!’

(Male, 18 or under, Creative Arts & Design, Medium Tariff University)

It is clear that levels of satisfaction across a range of issues varied according to HEI and course, but this variation was complex and not a simple ‘good university....bad university’ spectrum in the way that league tables implicitly suggest. The quality of education received varied in relation to students’ educational needs and their capacity to benefit from different courses. Given changes in student funding, increased individual contributions to the costs of HE and encouragement to see this period of their lives as an investment, the quality of HE experience is even more an equal opportunities issue.

Non-academic aspects of undergraduate experience and their relation to study

But HE is not just an investment towards future career development and other aspects of student experience help prepare students for life beyond the campus. The Futuretrack respondents were asked about other aspects of student experience; accommodation, time and distance from their HEI and travel options during term and extra-curricular activities and group memberships. All of these affect capacity to make the most of opportunities as a student and have career development implications.

Although the majority of Futuretrack Stage 2 respondents lived in traditional student halls of residence during their first year in higher education, a large number lived in other types of accommodation, and in particular a large proportion had remained at home, normally with other family members. While it was older students who were most likely to be living in their own home, a significant proportion of even the youngest age group lived in their previous homes and communities. Students from some ethnic groups were particularly likely to be living at home, regardless of their age, with Bangladeshi and Pakistani students being the most likely to have lived at home in their first year. Such students had further to travel to classes on average, in some cases considerably further. Figure 4 shows, once again, that socio-economic background was a major variable in determining location of study anda ccommodation, with students from the lowest socio-economic group considerably more likely to have applied to an HEI in the region where they already lived and to continue to live in their previous home, with family members. The same pattern is shown in a comparison by HEI tariff access category.

Figure 4 Type of accommodation of students by socio-economic background

 Graph: Type of accomodation of students by socio-economic background

The type of accommodation students were living in played an important role in their access to extra-curricular activities and students who lived in their own homes often travelled long distances to attend their HEI were less able to take part in extra-curricular activities within their HEI than students who lived in other types of accommodation. Students living in their own homes, either with other family members or on their own were the least likely to agree that there were excellent opportunities for extra-curricular activities on or around their HEI campus, whether or not they took advantage of these, as some commented.

‘Haven’t really got an opportunity to, the campus where all these activities take place on the main campus, which is a 40 min bus journey. I would have carried on with a sports team... rugby or netball’

(Female, 19-20, white, Subjects allied to medicine, Medium tariff university) 

Sports clubs and societies on campus were the extra-curricular activities most frequently attended, and activities taking place on campus were more popular in general than external activities, although this did vary by age and type of accommodation in particular. Students at the highest tariff universities and those from higher socio-economic groups were the most likely to take part in extra-curricular activities at their HEI, and to have been student representatives or office holders during their time in higher education. As these are important arenas for developing key skills and social and cultural capital, in this sense the HEIs can be regarded as perpetuating an existing advantage that particular groups of students had prior to entering HE.

Figure 5 'There were excellent opportunities for extra-curricular activities on or around the campus' by type of HEI

Level of agreement with statement''There were excellent opportunities for extra-curricular activities on or around the campus' by type of HEI

Figure 6 Proportion of students at each type of HEI who had been office holders or student representatives

Proportion of students at each type of HEI who had been office holders or student representatives

Students as part of the flexible labour market

The extent and patterns of students’ paid and voluntary or unpaid work during term and during vacations is a controversial issue and the Stage 2 report discusses the evidence for and against it, in terms of previous research findings about the extent to which work experience can significantly enhance career opportunities, skills and employability, but has also been found to be associated with stress, work overload and lower achievement in study outcomes. The introduction of student loans and top-up fees has resulted in an increasing proportion of the undergraduate population undertaking paid employment during their studies. Additionally, employers and students alike see employment during HE as providing a useful chance to gain skills and experience that will be useful when the student enters the labour force, as well as providing students with the opportunity to clarify what kind of employment is most appropriate for them. It was found that the average number of hours worked per week during term time by those students who had undertaken some paid employment was just over nine, but one of the most intriguing findings was the extent to which students’ plans prior to embarking on HE, and their actual participation in paid work during term and vacation when they become students, did not coincide as closely as might have been anticipated. Only half of those respondents who said at Stage 1 that they planned to do paid work during term time actually did so, but 40 per cent of those who said they planned to only work in vacations ultimately worked during term time. Of those who had said that they planned to do no paid work at all during their time in HE, 30 per cent ended up working during term time and a further 20 per cent during vacations. It is clear that some felt constrained to obtain paid work that they would have preferred not to engage in, while others sought but could not find work compatible with their studies.

As the longitudinal study proceeds, better information about, and to inform, career development in relation to HE expansion and occupational change is becoming available to HE applicants, students, graduates, careers advisers and employers and policymakers.

The full report is available from HECSU and Warwick IER


Bekhradnia, B. (2009) The Academic Experience of Students in English Universities (2009 report), Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), (accessed 24.6.09)

Purcell, K., Elias, P., Davies, R. and Wilton, N. (2005) The Class of '99: Graduate careers four years after graduation London: DfES


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