Navigation Toggle Icon

Careers advice driving inequality in education, report shows

1 April 2022

The Social Market Foundation think-tank said that careers support is still “socially patterned” meaning that schools in wealthier areas tend to steer children towards higher education, while schools in less affluent places are more likely to emphasise vocational routes. That pattern “risks entrenching inequality and social division,” the SMF said.

The SMF said that weaknesses in careers advice and guidance mean that some young people aren’t getting the broadest possible range of information about their future options.  “Levelling up” careers provision would make the country fairer, the think-tank suggested.

The think-tank studied careers provisions for a report, Fulfilling its potential?, which was sponsored by Unite Students. The SMF retained full editorial independence.

The report drew on extensive SMF focus group work with youngsters and parents that reveals the reality of the careers support on offer in state schools in England.

That reality often fails to match up to political ambitions for a system that gives people the greatest possible information on which to base choices about their future education and careers, the SMF said.

To ensure all learners have the best possible information, a full range of apprenticeship opportunities should be listed on the UCAS website alongside university choices, the SMF said.

UCAS, the University and Colleges Admissions Service, endorsed the SMF’s suggestion of offering applicants a broader range of education and training options when they apply for post-18 places. In many schools, students are required to create a UCAS account whether or not they intend to apply to university. 46% of those registering with the service say they would like more information on apprenticeships.

The SMF, a cross-party charity, also called for an overhaul of official websites and data sources offering information about university courses. Government sites are little-used and often out of date, the report found.

Key points from the report:

  • Despite legislation to try and put vocational options on an equal footing, university remains the default option in the eyes of teachers and families alike.
  • Careers services are socially patterned – affluent schools promote university over vocational options, and schools with more deprived students do the opposite.
  • Schools and colleges should be better incentivised to improve their IAG provision, by making it a bigger part of Ofsted inspections.
  • ‘Experiential’ information – information from friends, family, colleagues, current students or apprentices – is viewed as more reliable, up-to-date, and fundamentally more trustworthy than official sources.

The publication comes after the Department for Education published a Schools White Paper proposing changes in the way careers information, advice and guidance is provided in English schools.

Niamh O Regan, Researcher at the SMF, said: 

“Careers education is supposed to help people make informed decisions about their future. It is really important that people receive high quality information so that they can choose the education or training route that suits their skills and their aspirations best. As it stands, the system isn’t always doing that.”

“This isn’t about changing the number of people who chose HE or other routes. It’s about making sure people get the best possible information on which to base choices that will shape their careers for decades to come. And right now, the system isn’t always helping people make the best-informed choices.”

“Socially-patterned careers guidance means that people are steered towards different routes according to wealth, not talent or aptitude. That risks entrenching inequality and social division, instead of making sure that all routes are open to everyone, regardless of their background.”

Comments from participants in SMF focus groups: 

“…That’s what’s missing, where do you go… I don’t think there is much out there, there’s not one place to go to, that’s for certain.” – Young person

“I wish that my school showed each option equally.” – Young person

“There isn’t enough information available to parents, and even more than that you don’t know  where to source it, and when you find that resource you have to really look at the granular detail… the independent impartial advice is very difficult to identify” – Parent

UCAS already puts some apprenticeships on its lists, but most are not visible to its applicants. The service said it is keen to offer more of the information the SMF suggested.

Richard Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Unite Students said:

“At Unite Students we support the levelling up of opportunity as we know that many students are still missing out on fulfilling their potential. We know that university has the power to transform lives but it may not be the right route for everyone so it’s important school-leavers have easy access to information and support which guides them in their decision-making. We believe that all young people should have the best opportunities in life, which is why we hope that the Government duly considers and implements the SMF’s recommendations in this report.”

Clare Marchant, UCAS Chief Executive, said:

“We welcome the recommendations from the Social Market Foundation’s report and are significantly investing in our existing apprenticeship offer to bring true parity to how they, and technical training opportunities, can be presented to side-by-side to students with more traditional undergraduate courses.

“Our aim is to give students the ability to apply for a basket of choices, some traditional undergraduate courses and some apprenticeships, at the same time. It shouldn’t be an either/or decision.

“With around half of the over 700,000 applicants registering a UCAS account each year saying they’re also interested in an apprenticeship, we are well placed to connect would-be apprentices with employers as part of our trusted, independent role as the UK shared admissions service. Employers will have access to top talent, while hundreds of thousands of would-be apprentices will be able to easily access relevant and timely information to make to make the right decision for them about their next steps.”


  • The SMF report, Fulfilling its potential?, is available to download here
  • The report was sponsored by Unite Students. The SMF retains complete editorial independence of its publications.


For media enquiries, please contact

About Unite Students

Unite Students is the UK’s largest owner, manager and developer of purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) serving the country’s world-leading higher education sector. We provide homes to 74,000 students across 172 properties in 25 leading university towns and cities. We currently partner with over 60 universities across the UK.

Our people are driven by a common purpose: to provide a ‘Home for Success’ for the students who live with us. Unite Students’ accommodation is safe and secure, high quality, and affordable. Students live predominantly in en-suite study bedrooms with rents covering all bills, insurance, 24-hour security and high-speed wi-fi. We also achieved a five-star British Safety Council rating in our last audit in 2020.

We are committed to raising standards in the student accommodation sector for our customers, investors and employees. This is why our new Sustainability Strategy, launched in 2021, includes a commitment to become net zero carbon across our operations and developments by 2030.

Founded in 1991 in Bristol, the Unite Group is an award-winning Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), listed on the London Stock Exchange. For more information, visit Unite Group’s corporate website or the Unite Students’ site