UCAS Survey : influences on education choices and next steps

UCAS have produced a report based on survey results of students at GCSE, A Level and degree-level study. The report looks at the influences on choices of qualifications, the advice students receive and their next steps. You can access the report here.

UCAS have also produced a document that looks at ‘fixed’ and ‘fluid’ degree subjects -this gives you information on the pathways to accessing subjects, the qualifications needed and whether they are a must-have or would be beneficial to have. You can access that document here.


The UK’s education system is vast; there are over 50 GCSE and A Level subjects in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, and 70 Higher and Advanced Higher subjects in Scotland. There are over 12,000 funded vocational qualifications for ages 16-19, a growing number of technical education and apprenticeship opportunities and 35,000 undergraduate courses.

The ‘Where Next?’ report looks to understand how these choices impact the pathways young people take, how students are making these choices, at what stage the choices start to impact their next steps and the support students need to make an informed and aspirational decision.

Key Findings

Age and socio-economic background matters

The age at which students start thinking about Higher Education (HE) varies but is crucial to the next steps of their education, training and then employment. 1 in 3 of those surveyed had started thinking about HE in primary school which allowed them to make less limited choices later on in their education. 39% of students from wealthier postcodes (a proxy for measuring socio-economic status) had thought about HE in primary school, compared to only 27% of their more disadvantaged peers.

Wealthier students are less likely to say they had insufficient information on subjects, with 37% compared to 43% of their more disadvantaged peers. Wealthier students are less likely to study vocational courses too.

Better careers and education advice is needed

Survey respondents are unsatisfied with the careers advice they have received throughout their secondary and post-16 education. 1 in 5 say poor GCSE and A Level advice meant they couldn’t study the subject that interested them. This was particularly the case for those wishing to study topics that require a specific set of  GCSE and A Levels (or other qualifications at the equivalent level) to apply, such as medicine, dentistry, maths, economics and languages.

In addition 2 in 5 said they would have made different choices if they had received better careers advice whilst in education. For example, 1 in 3 said they had not received any information about apprenticeships from their school.

Influences on subject choice are changing

In terms of who influences students on their subject choices, the survey found that 83% of students said they had decided their degree subject before the college or university they chose to study at. This is further supported with 99% of students saying they made their subject choice based on the enjoyment of the subject whilst at school.

1 in 4 consider their parents to be the main influence, whilst 30% said the pandemic had influenced their decisions, with 50% saying higher graduate employment rates and good job prospects have become more important when they decided on their subjects.


  • Ensure greater join up between information sources, such as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), National Student Survey (NSS), UCAS Tariff points, the UCAS Hub, to create personalised advice to students that includes all pathways (such as technical education and apprenticeships).
  • Careers information, advice and guidance should be embedded within the primary schools and early secondary years; a full range of pathways and careers, age appropriate Gatsby Benchmarks, extension of the Careers and Enterprise Company ‘Primary Platform’ initiative and more target outreach work within primary school and early years
  • UCAS should review the range of qualification information it provides, including the UCAS Tariff and Qualification Information Profiles, to ensure it remains fit for purpose in the context of upcoming reforms to post-secondary education.
  • UCAS will ensure the delivery of the Baker Clause (schools must allow colleges and training providers access to every student in years 8-13 to discuss non-academic routes that are available to them)  via digital means, providing comprehensive information, advice, and content tools to help students make informed and aspirational choices.
  • Ofsted and school inspectorates across the UK to place more emphasis on the monitoring of careers information, advice and guidance in schools. This should span technical education and apprenticeships and include how primary schools equip children to progress.
  • Universities, colleges, and training providers put personalisation at the heart of the student experience through increased clarity of entry requirements for courses, more transparent pathways information, increased subject specific outreach.

Our Commentary

Our Youth Voice Census (2020) tells us that young people do not receive equal access to careers advice and support. They tell us year on year that they need support to understand all of their options and navigate what information and choices mean to them.

We see young people’s disadvantage is hindering their progress through insufficient subject advice and lower levels of information at a young age, potentially down to cultural capital of their parents or differentiating advice from schools regionally.

More must be done to inform young people of the wide range of pathways available to them. Our Young Professional Preparing For Your Future (ages 14-16) and Journey To Work (ages 17+) programmes are free online training courses for young people to explore and understand more about themselves and help them develop their understanding of the pathways available to them and the skills they need to get there. Our Choices Zone helps young people explore their next steps and a Careers Hub that invites young people to explore job roles on a sector by sector basis, detailing information around qualifications or experience needed, potential earnings and career paths.

For more information, please email info@youthemployment.org.uk or call 01536 513388.

Looking for Youth Friendly Employers?

Find out more about some of the organisations offering high quality training and work opportunities to young people. Your next dream role could be just a click away…

Latest Articles

See more

GTA Traineeships- #CreateYourFuture Opportunity

Any school leaver aged 16 up to 24 years old can apply for our work experience programme. No previous qualifications […]

19-24 Construction traineeship with The STC Group- #CreateYourFuture Opportunity

A traineeship is an education and training programme with work experience that is focused on giving young people the skills […]

16-24 Business traineeship with The STC Group- #CreateYourFuture Opportunity

You could be suitable for a Traineeship if you are: Eligible to work in England Not currently in employment Have […]

Traineeship in Business Administration with Rewards Training- #CreateYourFuture Opportunity

Traineeships are an education and training programme with work experience for young people whose preference is to find a job […]