Last August, I was helping Mustafa make his university applications.
‘Do you know what you want to study?’
‘Do you know which universities you’re going to apply to?’
‘Well… kind of.’
Working in schools since 2005, I’d had this conversation hundreds of times. Every year students struggle to choose the best universities for them.
At the same time, teachers find it difficult to keep track of where their students have got to in making their choices.
It seems that every Year 12 contains about 10 students who diligently do their research and come up with a sensible set of five universities to put on their UCAS form. But tens more require relentless haranguing, and however much effort you put in, you still end up with the odd application for medicine on the strength of a set of Ds.
To get to the bottom of the problem, I asked students if I could watch over their shoulders as they did their research. What I saw was lots of hopeless hopping between the UCAS site, university league tables, and the universities’ own sites. Students only clicked on universities whose names they recognised, and they didn’t find out any data on the courses beyond what the entry requirements were.
This is ironic given the wealth of information available. Students could compare courses on factors such as the proportion of coursework versus exams, the ratio of male to female students, and the average starting salary of graduates who have done that course.
It is particularly strange not to make use of this data because it’s become normal to make sophisticated data comparisons when, for example, buying a mobile phone. And it’s even harder to understand when you consider that the degrees being chosen will cost in the region of £30,000 – these decisions are worth getting right.
Most frustratingly, the situation tends to be worse if you come from a poorer background.
It’s not uncommon for an average-size independent school to have three full-time staff helping students navigate their university applications, whereas the comprehensive where I taught has half a person, and is a larger school. In addition, students from poorer backgrounds are more prone to making less savvy decisions. For example, they are more likely to apply for highly competitive subjects like medicine and law, while students from richer backgrounds seem to be better at playing the system – they are more likely to apply for less competitive but still prestigious joint-honours degrees.
I thought it was worth trying to solve these problems – and what I’ve come up with along with a small team is an online tool called Unifrog.
The idea is to help students choose the best universities for them, and to help teachers track students’ progress in making these choices.
When students log in, they first have to consider a wide range of possible degree subjects (the tool will suggest, for example, ‘Anthropology with a year abroad’ if a student types in ‘History’). Secondly the tool encourages students to choose courses with a range of entry requirements: we match entry requirements to students’ likely academic performance, and they have to select some courses at the top, middle and bottom of their range. Next students can compare every course in the UK on 12 data points – everything from the distance from their home, to the cost of tuition fees, to the average student satisfaction rating. Students use this data to whittle down their longlist to just five choices, and then Unifrog makes it easy for students to book open days at the universities on their shortlist.
All well and good, but teachers also need some help. To make it easier for form tutors to keep track of who is choosing what, they are emailed a PDF detailing their students’ shortlist. This means they can quickly spot if a student is in danger of making unwise decisions. In addition, Unifrog gives teachers an at-a-glance view of where each student in a year group has got to in terms of completing the tool, so they can see who is falling behind, and focus their efforts on the students who need their help most.
We finished Unifrog in mid-March, and the first person I asked to trial the tool was Mustafa, whose decision-making had been one of the sparks for the project.
He said, ‘The frog should be purple. Why’d you have to make it ugly?’, but also, ‘It’s brilliant. I wish I’d had this.’
Since then we’ve been selling subscriptions to schools (allowing all their students unlimited use of the tool) at a rate of about one per day, which is far more than we’d been expecting. I’m also pleased that in an effort to bring the tool to more students, we are offering The Day schools a 20% discount on subscriptions.
I think the biggest challenge so far has been one that is typical of new enterprises: to get the project off the ground you often feel that you are pushing at a closed door. To overcome this problem, it’s important that you don’t believe it when someone says, ‘The reason no one has done this yet is because it can’t be done!’