Best Laid Plans: What Motivates Students?

November 11, 2021, by Emily Dixon, AccessHE

Over the last few months, AccessHE has been working through the data for our recent research report, Best Laid Plans: London’s ‘Covid Cohort’ and Access to Higher Education. The hundreds of young people from London we surveyed in summer 2021 gave us a huge range of data covering everything from their hopes and dreams to their estimates of how much teaching will be in person this academic year. In the report we explore what we found in terms of demographic trends, changes over time and gaps in different students’ opportunities to prepare for higher education, particularly for students who don’t have family members with degrees and might not have sources of advice and guidance at home.

Today we’re going to take a closer look at respondents’ free text answers where they gave their reasons for why they wanted to go on to higher education in their own words. If we look particularly at what young people said about their motivations, their multiple choice responses looked like this:

The top three answers, with over 80% of respondents indicating it was a reason for them to pursue higher education, were overwhelmingly positive. Prospective students said that they wnted to be students and experience student life, they enjoy learning and want to spend time studying their chosen subject, and they believe they’ll be more employable with a higher education degree. Trailing in last place is the idea that Coronavirus reducing access to other opportunities. In general, we can see an optimistic pictures of students recognising the benefits of higher education and wanting to pursue it for social, academic and employment reasons.

Elsewhere in the survey, we gave respondents the opportunity to tell us their thoughts in more detail. When we gave respondents the option of telling us their thoughts in a free text box, there were very few who said ‘I don’t know’ or didn’t give an answer. Only a very small handful mentioned the Covid-19 pandemic or lack of opportunities in a post-lockdown world.


“Because it is the require path for my career and it is also the thing that attracts me the most, in that I will be learning about the things I love in depth.”


Traditional and Non-Traditional Pathways

A small but noticeable proportion, just under a tenth of respondents, indicated that they had considered the possibility of doing a degree apprenticeship or pursuing a less traditional pathway towards a degree. Where respondents talked about having considered apprenticeships, some suggested that they would have been interested in pursuing one if they had been able to find opportunities in their chosen subject areas. Some students spoke about receiving less information, advice and guidance (IAG) about less traditional pathways towards degrees at their schools and colleges. This indicates that London’s HE sector could productively look for more opportunities to make students aware of the wide range of options for getting a degree, including part time study and degree apprenticeships.


“I wanted to experience a good level of specialised education in an environment that lets me explore myself both within the context of my studies and as a person.”


Employability and the Student Experience

The most popular reason we saw for wanting to study was belief that higher education would have major career advantages. Employment was mentioned in almost half of the free text answers, often as students’ sole reason for wanting a degree. Students were split between needing a degree to enter specific careers they had already chosen (for example, medicine) and a more general belief that degrees can open doors and create opportunities in a range of career fields.

The idea of the ‘student experience’ and social opportunities in higher education was popular but trailed far behind employment. This is interesting, given that it scored slightly higher than employability on the multiple choice list. It is possible that the student experience is a factor in more students’ decisions, but employability is more likely to be high up in their priorities.


“I know the most about it and the outcomes it will provide me. It allows me to continue to learn in an academic environment (in which I thrive) and learn more about a subject that interests me while keeping my career prospects wide and more accessible with a degree.”



London’s young people in 2021 give every indication that they are approaching higher education thoughtfully, optimistically, and with consideration for their careers and futures. We know that demand for higher education is increasing, particularly in London where ever more ambitious cohorts of prospective students want degrees. The survey data suggests that more students could benefit from IAG that explains their full range of options for modes of studying, focusing on both employability and the myriad ways of earning a degree in London.