Why the UK needs better higher education guidance

At this time of year I visit a lot of schools, typically two or three a week. I can give you a good overview on where has the best parking, who offers the nicest lunch and the intricacies of the sign-in procedures at each school. Quite often I am there to give a talk to students in their penultimate year of school, but occasionally I'm conducting 1-2-1 interviews with students on international university applications.

In both types of visit, I try to address the 'myths' that students at British schools hold on how choosing a university works. The biggest one of these is this: that I have to know what I want to study so that I can choose a university. Broadly speaking, university advising in the UK involves asking oneself three questions:

1) What subject(s) do I wish to study at university?

2) What grades am I likely to achieve in my A Levels (or equivalent)?

3) Where in the UK would I like to be?

There is a wonderfully helpful book published each year by Brian Heap, which is the staple of most school careers departments. The book is divided into subject areas, with universities then listed in descending order of the grades you need to get in. So a student interested in studying Maths, for example, can open the book, scan to the grade level they expect to be at, and pick out the 10-15 universities in that range that they should then research further. Other books, websites and portals (and anyone who knows me will know that a huge Unifrog fan I am) follow similar approaches.

And yet, how many students actually know aged 17 what they want to study? I ask this question when I give talks in schools, and usually at least half the hands go up. What about the other half? What about those who have other motivations for going to university? What about those who want some that is not 'off the shelf'?

Two of the most enjoyable moments of my career so far were the two fortnights I had at the International School of Brussels when we met with Grade 11 students and parents to discuss their post-school plans. We started with a blank sheet of paper, and discussed the student's own motivations, aspirations and hopes, and could then look at options all over the world that would suit them best.

A story I've told a number of times is my memory of speaking to one student, who presented me with a very strange list of ideas: primary education at one place, nursing somewhere else, psychology at a third place. I couldn't work out the underlying motivations. After some fruitless discussions, I asked her mother for her thoughts: "she just wants to work with small children" was the reply. I quickly brought up the webpages for Norland College in Bath and The Chiltern College in Reading, both of which offer formal childcare qualifications for prospective nannies. This student and her family did not know that this was an option for her, and they left my office inspired to pursue these courses further.

My worry about the way we deliver university guidance in the UK, is that (to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld), so many families "don't know what they don't know." If that student had been at a British school, she probably wouldn't have had a mandated meeting with a specialist on post-secondary options, and may never have heard of the two places which suited her best. She'd have been in a system where she was expected to use off-the-shelf resources to find out what was available to her, rather than having been given the opportunity to explore in depth her motivations and aspirations with an experienced expert in this area.

This is why I love my work, getting into schools and speaking with students, presenting them with options that they've never heard of. It's a wonderful experience to see a student's eyes light up when they realise that the exact thing they wanted does actually exist somewhere, and they don't have to fit themselves into a system which might not be best for them. Sometimes visiting a school can be a chore: hours on a motorway, time away from my family, knowing that the emails are stacking up and I will have to stay up late at night to catch up. Despite this I will continue to do it, to spread the word across the UK that - for the sake of our students - we need a step-change in our Higher Education advising.

David Hawkins