The student aspiration gap: what it is, why it matters, and how we fight it
29th January 2024
With more than half of UK state schools and colleges now using Unifrog, and over 500,000 student logins since 1 September 2023, we’re in a unique position to analyse the post-school intentions of students across the country.
We’ve found that the percentage of students who shortlist at least one aspirational UK university course on the Unifrog platform is at its lowest level in six cycles.
Moreover, a concerning trend is the growing aspiration gap between disadvantaged students (those in IMD 1–3 areas) and their more advantaged peers. This aspiration gap is currently at 9% – the widest Unifrog has observed – and indicates that disadvantaged students are becoming less likely to realise their potential.
"The data is really interesting, particularly given that we have the journey to a million applicants currently championed by UCAS. The theory is that the larger the pool of students, the greater the chances of diversifying the pool of students going to HE. This makes some major assumptions in relation to group composition, attainment levels achieved, etc. which may mean that we don’t see equal opportunities across the board."
Karl Devincenzi, Recruitment and Schools Relationship Manager at University of Exeter
Why are students making ‘safer’ choices?
We put our heads together with some of our HE partners to investigate possible reasons for the decline in students shortlisting aspirational opportunities, particular for disadvantaged students:
During the pandemic, aspiration levels among disadvantaged students rose, partly due to grade inflation. Now this trend is reversing, with just 27.2% of A levels awarded A or A* grades in August 2023 (down from 44.8% during the pandemic). IMD 1–3 students have been the hardest hit by this effect.
COVID continues to have a negative impact on young people's confidence in sitting exams, which has a knock-on effect when it comes to choosing aspirational courses. Keir Robinson from University of Edinburgh believes that ‘applicant confidence has taken a hit and exams will definitely be a factor here.’
Last cycle saw the lowest number of students placed at their firm choice since the removal of number caps in 2012, which may be leading students to make ‘safer’ choices. Karl Devincenzi told us that Exeter ‘witnessed a larger proportion of students unplaced at results day this year and this tells us how volatile the system is at present.’
The spectre of the pandemic's oversubscribed courses still lingers with many competitive universities continuing risk-averse offers strategies. This exacerbates the pre-existing fair access concerns identified by Mark Corver from DataHE of polarised demand for highly selective courses, with around 9.2% of people living in POLAR Q5 neighbourhoods applying, compared to 2.2% in Q1.
Work with us to raise every student’s aspirations
Unifrog’s mission is to level the playing field for all young people when it comes to finding the best opportunities after school or college. Our intuitive tools and resources give students the knowledge, skills, and confidence to make informed choices for their future.
As a university or HE partner, we can work together to improve your widening participation strategy and reduce the aspiration gap:
We can train your outreach team to deliver HE sessions using the Unifrog platform in targeted schools and colleges that meet your APP criteria.
Reach IMD 1–3 and POLAR4 Q1–2 students with relevant opportunities, such as contextual offers, scholarships, bursaries, and money management webinars.
Participate in Unifrog’s events, such as teacher conferences, CPD workshops, and university fairs, to create meaningful connections with relevant and engaged students and teachers.
You could also sponsor a school or college in a disadvantaged area that meets your APP criteria to help their students access Unifrog’s careers and university guidance.