Long read: So you think you know what your pupils should study at university?

The system demands students pick one subject when they head into HE, but research suggests this is way too early. They'll likely change their mind

University decisions

If you’ve ever been present when A-level students collect their exam results, then you’ll know just what it means for those who are heading off to university to be told that they got the grades they needed.

It is the culmination of years of hard work. Ucas application deadlines have come and gone, as have university offers (and rejections). These pupils have known for some time exactly where the next three, four or five years of their life will hopefully be spent – and which subject they will be studying. 

Applying to university is a stressful process – and not just for the students. Teachers, careers advisers and leadership teams are often heavily involved in the process, from offering practical information and guidance, to sifting through prospectuses and institution websites to help identify the most suitable courses.

This is why for those pupils who get the grades they need, A-level results day can long remain one of the best of their lives. And for the teachers who helped them to get there, it can be an annual highlight. 

But how many of those students, once you’ve said your teary goodbyes and waved them off, actually go on to complete the degree course that they worked so hard to get on to? It is an important question. School staff are among the most influential people when a young person is deciding where to study next, and if you believe your advice is tried and tested thanks to the countless students you have helped onto courses, you might want to think again.

Some will inevitably have dropped out. Others will have had a last-minute change of heart and chosen a different university through clearing or adjustment. But I was interested to find out how many undergraduates change course during their time at university.

It is often said that the UK university system forces students to specialise too soon. Why, at 16 years old (or younger), should pupils be expected to decide whether they want to dedicate their university years to politics, English or physics? How can teachers be expected to help them make that call?

In many other countries, students can study a range of subjects in their first year at university before selecting their focus in later years.

According to research carried out at Warwick University last year, only 10 per cent of 18 to 49-year-olds said they would pick the same A levels if they were to choose again now. With this in mind, I sent a freedom of information request to the English universities in the Russell Group to find out how many students graduated with a different degree to the one on which they enrolled.

High switch rates

Although there are plenty of good reasons that this might happen (changes might involve a student opting to add a year abroad to their studies, resulting in a different degree title, for example), there is still merit, though, in looking at the numbers. Particularly when schools, sixth forms and colleges spend so much time looking at pupil outcomes – perhaps often assuming that when Harriet went off to Oxford to study maths, she came out with a maths degree. 

Of the 20 English Russell Group universities I approached, 14 sent useable data showing trends over the past five years. In all cases, hundreds – and in many cases thousands – of students graduated with a different degree to the one they put on their Ucas application while at school.

Since 2012, almost 3,700 students at the University of Liverpool have graduated with a different title of degree to the one they signed up for. At the University of Exeter, it is more than 4,800; at Sheffield, it is more than 6,300; and at Nottingham, more than 7,100 changed course part way through.

Some universities helpfully provided an overall percentage of students changing course. At Durham University, for example, an average of 18 per cent of pupils fall into this category in each of the past five years; at Queen Mary, University of London, it is 17 per cent. 

At the University of Oxford last year, 353 undergraduates changed courses. According to the institution’s website, there were some 3,200 undergraduates in total, meaning that even at arguably the most prestigious university in the country, about 10 per cent of students end up with a different piece of paper at the end of their studies to the one they originally wanted. 

The news that, at some other institutions, nearly one-in-five students do just that may come as something of a surprise. 

Of course, this is not inherently negative. Many of the course changes will be minor, and having flexibility in the university system is a good thing – particularly when so many students make potentially life-changing decisions about university at such a young age.

But why does the English system seem to encourage such early specialisation? Over the border in Scotland, things are done differently. 

Scottish degree programmes usually include four years of study, compared with three in England. Part of the reasoning is to build flexibility into the experience, and to encourage students to get a broader education. Students can try a range of subjects before specialising.

The University of Edinburgh, for example, told me that 25 to 30 per cent of its undergraduates get a different degree to the one they originally expected, with one in 10 graduating from a different school altogether. 

The great thing here is that such changes are expected – by teachers, and by students. There is no shame or psychological barrier to overcome if an undergraduate wants to change tack. In England, I worry that many students will stick it out on a course they are unhappy with purely because the system means it is something they have been working towards since they were 16 – or younger, if you include A level and GCSE choices. 

School guidance

There are concerns here, too, for the guidance that schools should be giving to pupils when they begin the Ucas process. On the one hand, it is reassuring to know that despite being expected to commit to a degree at such an early stage, many thousands end up switching while at university to something more suitable. On the other hand, however, because the processes involved in such a switch will vary from institution to institution, teachers should be wary of simply assuming such flexibility will be an option for those who regret their decision.

Alas, instead of encouraging more in-depth and flexible learning, recent government reforms point towards a desire for more niche learning on degrees that take less time. In December, ministers unveiled plans to increase the provision of two-year degrees in England.

While such fast-track courses are expected to reduce the overall cost of getting a degree, which will be welcomed by many, critics have warned that it will reduce the breadth of knowledge and experience that students gain from their time at university. School teachers and careers advisers will have to consider carefully whether such courses are a good fit for members of their Year 12 cohort – particularly when so many on traditional three-to-five-year courses are not completing their original course.

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