The Class of 2023, who took A Level exams and other qualifications this summer, have reached a critical moment of transition: many are making decisions with long-lasting consequences for their future paths after compulsory education. With the release of A Level results and university admissions decisions this month, one of the key areas of interest is their higher education plans. In this analysis, the first to use data from the second wave of the COSMO (COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities) study, we explore some crucial aspects of how the Class of 2023 see their futures planning out and made their university plans based on this.
Who is heading for higher education among the class of 2023 and how did their university aspirations vary?
Among the Class of 2023, the proportion aspiring to go to university has risen compared to earlier cohorts. In our most direct comparison, compared to young people in the Next Steps cohort study, who took their A levels in 2008, when asked at the same age the COSMO cohort are over 10 percentage points more likely to report having applied to, being very or fairly likely to apply to go to university: 57% reported this when aged 17-18 in Next Steps, but 68% in COSMO.
University aspirations also varied by socioeconomic background. Young people with various measures of disadvantage were much less likely to either have applied to or plan to apply to university, compared to their better-off peers. Those from working class families were less likely to either have applied or intend to apply to university compared to those with parents in managerial or professional occupations (57% vs 77%). Those from families who used a food bank in the last year were also 21 percentage points less likely to either have applied to or expect to apply to university (48% vs 69% for those from families that had not used a food bank, see figure 1). Aspirations also differed between students attending different kinds of post-16 institution: those who were privately educated were more likely to either have already applied to or intend to apply to university, compared to those who attended a state school or college (96% compared to 74%).
Figure 1. Having applied to or likely to apply to university, by food bank usage (N = 8,750)
Among those who had applied or were planning to apply, there were also substantial differences in preferring to attend a Russell Group university by family financial circumstances and type of post-16 institution attending. Those from families who used a food bank in the last year were 13 percentage points less likely to list a Russell Group institution as their preferred university to attend (37% vs 50% for those from families that had not used a food bank). Those who were privately educated were much more likely to want to go to a Russell Group university, compared to those who attended a state school or college (80% compared to 46%).
Who is more likely to be planning to live at home while attending university?
Living at home during term time while attending university rose substantially during the pandemic (continuing an upward trend evident beforehand), with many university activities curtailed. While this dropped back somewhat post-pandemic, there are indications that the spiralling cost of living is having an impact on young people’s ability to afford to live away from home. For young people in COSMO who had already applied to or planned to apply to university, 20% plan to live at home during term time if they are successful in getting into their preferred university, with 14% of them not yet decided. Among those who plan to live at home, just a fifth (19%) said this was because their preferred university was near their home, while a similar proportion (18%) reported that the main reason was because they could not afford to live away from home. Nearly half of them (46%) reported that the main reason was because they wanted to be near their families.
With the rising cost of living, young people who plan to live at home are disproportionately more likely to be those from families facing financial challenges. Young people from families which reported using a food bank in the past year were much more likely to plan on living at home (31% vs 19% for those that did not use a food bank, see figure 2). The same was true for those from families which are behind with their housing payments (33% vs 17%). These are not surprising, as families who are struggling financially are likely to find it harder to support their children living away from home.
Besides financial challenges, young people having caring responsibilities may also make moving away from home more difficult for some. Young carers were more likely to plan to live at home than those without such responsibilities (29% vs 19%).
Figure 2. Planned university living arrangements by food bank usage (N = 5,316)
We also find a big gap in young people’s living arrangements by type of post-16 institution. Those who attended a state school or college were 17 percentage points more likely to plan to live at home when they go to university, compared to their privately educated peers (21% vs 4%).
There are many good reasons for young people wanting to stay near home when going to university, which may underpin the rationale for the group who simply say that they want to be near to their families. However, our concern is cases where cost or related factors are driving this decision, which is likely to entrench existing inequalities between those from different socioeconomic groups. Indeed, our findings suggest that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to plan to study locally, and that cost concerns may play a part in their decision for a substantial group.
How did young people’s aspirations to go to a Russell Group university vary by their living arrangements?
We also find a smaller proportion of those planning to live at home during university term time say that they would most like to study at a Russell Group university. Mirroring differences by family background (41% of young people from working class families report that they would most like to attend a Russell Group university vs 55% of those from those whose parents higher occupational status), young people planning to live at home are much less likely to express a preference to study at a prestigious Russell Group university as those planning to move away (37% vs 56%, see figure 3).
Figure 3. Russell Group university preference by planned living arrangements (N = 5,841)
This suggests that, while choosing to attend a local university and to live at home while studying helps to reduce the upfront costs of participating in HE, it could also limit university choices. This is most likely for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Furthermore, given their uneven geographical spread, this could particularly affect the likelihood of those from less advantaged backgrounds applying to more prestigious universities.
Was university unaffordability a reason for some young people not planning to apply to university?
What about the decision-making of those who do not plan to apply for university to do a degree? When asked about their reasons for not wanting to apply to HE, more than one-fifth (22%) stated that they did not intend to apply to university because they could not afford to go. This proportion is higher for some groups than others, with differences especially by family background.
Young people from working class families were 8 percentage points more likely to report this reason, compared to those with professional and managerial parents (27% vs 19%). The gap is larger still by whether young people’s families have suffered from food poverty in the past year. Those from families who had used a food bank in the that time were 20 percentage points more likely to report not being able to afford to go as a barrier to applying, compared to those from families who had not (39% vs 19%, see figure 4). Given that this analysis is restricted to those who do not plan to apply to university, who are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, the composition of this group may somewhat understate the size of this gap.
Figure 4. Unaffordability given as reason for not planning to apply to university by food bank usage (N = 2,431)
What were views and attitudes towards Higher Education among the Class of 2023?
Finally, we explore these young people’s perceptions of the value of going to university to do a degree. We find the Class of 2023 have mixed attitudes towards HE. Whilst almost three-quarters (73%) agreed that getting a degree leads to better-paid jobs later in life, less than half (48%) viewed taking up student loans to go to university as a good investment. These figures suggest that although young people’s attitudes towards the benefits of HE in labour market are positive, their views on the debt involved in HE participation are negative, perhaps reflecting recent discourse around student debt, as well as changes to repayment terms.
These attitudes varied by young people’s socio-economic background. Compared to those from working class families, young people with professional and managerial parents were more likely to say that doing a degree leads to better paid jobs (80% vs 71%) and taking up student loans to go to university is a good investment (55% vs 43%).
Unsurprisingly, young people who held positive attitudes on the value of HE were more likely either to have applied to or plan to apply to university, compared to their peers who held negative views or stated that they did not know. For example, young people who view student loans as a good investment were more likely to either have applied to or plan to apply to university, compared to those who disagree on this (85% vs 46%) and those who said they don’t know (62%).
The Class of 2023, who are among the most university-inclined cohorts ever seen in England, nevertheless continue to face barriers that are more likely to put less advantaged cohort members off going to university, including more prestigious Russell Group universities. As a result, although the Class of 2023 are more likely to aspire to university than previous cohorts, these aspirations remain stratified by their socio-economic backgrounds: young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are the least likely to either have applied or be planning to apply to university. Even among young people who have already applied or intend to apply to university, those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from families facing financial challenges were more likely to favour living at home, with a significant minority giving the reason for this as cost savings while studying at university, rather than because of it being their favoured institution. This highlights the risk that cost pressures limit university choices — including making it less likely to apply to a more prestigious university — suggesting that the available upfront student support is not currently doing enough to support all potential students.
The findings reinforce the case for the reintroduction of maintenance grants for those from disadvantaged households. Especially for disadvantaged young people who have the academic potential to benefit from HE, cost concerns should not be the main reason for not wanting to go to university or not planning to apply to a more prestigious institution. To equalise opportunities for participation in HE, there is a need for improved financial support for students’ living costs, at least keeping pace with a rapidly rising cost of living.