University choice: The cost of getting it wrong

Few state schools teach their students about the status differences between universities – even though it is a big factor in how much money they will earn. Geraldine Hackett reports

Durham Johnston, in the North-east, is one of the few state comprehensives that can give independent schools a run for their money when it comes to getting its pupils into the top universities.

Steve McArdle, head of sixth form, makes it clear to his students that a degree from the University of Warwick will set you up for a high-flying career in a way that may not be case if you get a degree from London Metropolitan or Thames Valley universities.

"I know it is considered politically incorrect by some teachers, but I tell our sixth-formers that employers will be more concerned about which university they attended than the class of their degree," McArdle says.

Research commissioned by the Sutton Trust and carried out by London's Institute of Education suggests that McArdle may be unusual in the state sector in pointing out that if you, say, want a job with a big city law firm or a high-powered finance company, you are better off getting a place at a Russell Group university.

"I can understand teachers' reluctance to stress the different status of universities," he says. "The children's parents or teachers in the school might be graduates from Teesside University. But it would be doing the pupils a disservice not to provide the information."

Durham Johnston sends 42 per cent of its sixth-form students to Russell Group universities. It is one of the relatively few comprehensives in the country to send significant numbers of students to the most prestigious institutions.

Even in the successful schools, teachers are reluctant to draw attention to status differences between universities, according to the Sutton Trust study, which surveyed comprehensives that have a good track record in sending pupils to highly selective universities. Many students appeared to have only a vague notion of the status of individual institutions.

The research is backed up by an online questionnaire of 3,000 young people, carried out by PeopleSurv for the Sutton Trust. It found that 51 per cent of people educated in state schools believe that there is no difference in earnings between graduates of different universities, compared with 35 per cent from independent schools who think that there is. Teenagers from poorer backgrounds were the least likely to be aware of the differences.

Schools also fail to warn pupils that they may be jeopardising their chances of getting in to a top university by opting for "soft" A-levels. That is because some universities won't accept soft subjects such as film studies, media studies, leisure studies or dance. Cambridge University, for example, advises applicants against taking more than one subject from a list of 25 "soft" subjects that appears on its website.

"Doing these A-levels individually is not a problem – it is doing too many of them," says Geoff Parks, Cambridge's director of admissions. "We know the schools' bright students are on track to get As, but in subject combinations that essentially rule them out."

The new National Council for Educational Excellence, in a report to be published later in the summer, is expected to recommend that every secondary school appoint a senior teacher to give guidance to pupils about their choice of courses from age 14. League tables ranking schools on the proportion of pupils they send to university could also be published.

The wrong choice of university can cost a great deal in terms of getting a highly paid job. Research by the London School of Economics (not yet published) suggests that the wage returns for graduates from a top-ranked university can be as much as twice as high as the returns for a graduate from a more lowly ranked institution.

Separate research at London's Institute of Education has found that nearly one-fifth of graduates from elite universities in the mid-1990s were now earning more than £90,000, compared with only eight per cent and five per cent of those who had gone to other "old" and "new" universities. More than one-third of the graduates from elite universities now owned their home outright, compared with 21 per cent of graduates from other universities and 13 per cent of non-graduates.

Does all this research constitute evidence that state schools are failing their university applicants? Most schools insist that they do tell pupils that universities differ in status. However, one head, who did not want to be named, says that it probably is the case that some schools don't encourage their students to apply to the elite universities.

"There are some teachers who think their pupils won't fit in at the top universities," he says. "There are teachers who are antagonistic to the idea of privilege, and that is how they see elite universities. We encourage our students to apply for the top universities, but we are not particularly critical of 'new' universities. Those new universities might be the best bet for some of our students."

At St Charles Catholic sixth-form college in Ladbroke Grove, west London, where 82 per cent of pupils are from ethnic minorities, a group of AS-level students has a hazy grasp of the university pecking order. They know that Oxford and Cambridge are the top two universities, but have not heard of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, though they knew that Imperial College and Warwick are leading universities.

They do, however, have a good idea of the universities they want to go to and the grades they would need. Abigaile Cawley Gentles, 18, who has Jamaican parents, is predicted to get grades of AABC at A-level, and hopes to go to UCL to do architecture. Zainab Moh, 17, who lived in Nigeria until she was nine, knows she needs A grades if she is to get a place at King's College London to study medicine. Mara Wamot, 18, who is Polish, is applying to Portsmouth to do sports science; she would have preferred to go to Loughborough, but doesn't think she will get the four As needed.

To help with their choices, the college organised a special day for them with admission tutors from 25 universities. Paul O'Shea, the college's principal, admits that his students are probably not as clued up about the differences between universities as those from independent schools, but that doesn't stop them getting places at leading universities, he says.

"We know students' predicted grades and we advise them on their Ucas choices. This year we have three students holding Oxford offers. If a student has the potential to go to a top university, we make sure they apply," he says.

The findings of the PeopleSurv poll have prompted the Russell Group of universities to hold special conferences to inform teachers and advisers about applying to university. "We are alarmed at increasing evidence that some teachers may not be encouraging some of their students to consider Russell Group universities," says Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group. "It is particularly important that pupils from families who haven't been to university, or who have less knowledge about higher education than others, are given robust support and guidance at school."

The Institute of Education's research on successful schools recommended that pupils be encouraged to think about university entrance much earlier than they currently do. This is particularly important in schools without sixth forms, where the model of high-aspiring sixth-form students is missing, they say. Their study found that large sixth forms are generally more successful, and warned against the proliferation of small ones.

The study also suggested that the Government set up pilot programmers of extra support for the application process in schools less experienced at getting their pupils into leading universities. But Durham Johnston's McArdle believes that even such efforts will leave state schools at a disadvantage. "The independent schools can invest more time on getting their pupils into the target universities," he says. "They cultivate their links with admission tutors. We have to work just as hard at it."

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