In the UK today, a young person’s upbringing has consequences for their education and life chances. We know that one of the biggest barriers to accessing university is attainment at secondary school.[1] We also know that less advantaged students are estimated to be around 18 months behind their more advantaged peers by the time they take their GCSEs.[2]

But the university experience is about so much more than just getting in.

Get Set for Success

Staying on from first to second year, securing a good degree classification, and going on to employment or further study are also important. Those students who do earn a university degree can expect to enjoy greater access to professional careers[3] and report higher rates of life satisfaction.[4]

However, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more at risk of dropping out of their university course[5] and three times more likely to miss out on a 1st or a 2:1 degree compared to their more advantaged peers.[6] So, while GCSE and A-level attainment helps to ensure more equitable access to higher education, there is more to be done to ensure all students have a fair chance at success.

Research shows us that effective study strategies, academic confidence, and a sense of belonging are important contributors to both getting in and getting on at university. Students who select effective study strategies achieve higher grades at university than those who take a surface level approach to their studies.[7] The good news is that we can teach students to monitor and direct their own learning in primary school[8] and secondary school[9], with positive effects on their attainment.

Confidence is Key

Confidence in being able to succeed academically – “academic self-efficacy” – has consistently been found to be one of the biggest predictors of university attainment[10]. This confidence partly comes from having succeeded in the past, but there are other strategies that can be used in outreach settings, such as providing encouragement, guidance, and positive feedback (for example through mentoring).[11] From a randomised control trial run at The Brilliant Club, we know that students’ confidence in their academic ability to succeed university improved after they took part in our Scholars Programme.[12]

Finally, feeling a sense of belonging at university is not just a bonus to the university experience, but is also related to higher attainment[13] and lower likelihood of dropping out.[14] While students are at school, participating in outreach activities can help them feel more like university is ‘for them’ and helps the transition university and progression itself.[15]

For these reasons, we offer our Scholars Programme to children as young as 8, so they can begin to see university as a viable option from an early age.

Joining the dots

In the build-up to undergraduate study, it is important to normalise an often-difficult transitionary period in students’ lives and help them build new connections. [16]

Our newly launched university transition programme, Join the Dots, aims to do just that, by connecting students with a PhD coach and peers from similar backgrounds and supporting them from A-level results day through to their second term of university. This is particularly important for disadvantaged students, who tend to have lower levels of sense of belonging in higher education.[17]

Sector evidence demonstrates that core curriculum attainment is crucial to university access. But there are many pieces to the puzzle. Knowledge, skills and confidence, collectively, are the key to unlocking university success.

Susie Whigham, Interim CEO of The Brilliant Club.

As part of AQi’s work, we are inviting people from a wide range of viewpoints to engage with us on a wide range of topics. We welcome alternative views to help stimulate discussion and ideas. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent the views of AQi or AQA.

Image credit: Wikimedia commons

[1] Crawford, C., Gregg, P., Macmillan, L., Vignoles, A. and Wyness, G., 2016. Higher education, career opportunities, and intergenerational inequality. Oxford Review of Economic Policy32(4), pp.553-575.

[2] Education in England: Annual Report 2020 - Education Policy Institute (





[7] Schneider, M. and Preckel, F., 2017. Variables associated with achievement in higher education: A systematic review of meta-analyses. Psychological bulletin143(6), p.565.

[8] Dignath, C., Büttner, G., and Langfeldt, H.P. (2008). How can primary school students learn self-regulated learning strategies most effectively? A meta-analysis on self-regulation training programmes. Educational Research Review, 3(2), 101-129.

[9] Mannion, J., & Mercer, N. (2016). Learning to learn: improving attainment, closing the gap at Key Stage 3. The Curriculum Journal, 27(2), 246-271.

[10] Schneider, M. and Preckel, F., 2017. Variables associated with achievement in higher education: A systematic review of meta-analyses. Psychological bulletin143(6), p.565; Richardson, M., Abraham, C. and Bond, R., 2012. Psychological correlates of university students' academic performance: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin138(2), p.353; Robbins, S.B., Lauver, K., Le, H., Davis, D., Langley, R. and Carlstrom, A., 2004. Do psychosocial and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin130(2), p.261.

[11] Atanasov, K.G., Dudnytska, N., Estes, T. and Marsh, J., 2013. Intervention strategies promoting academic self-efficacy in prospective first-generation college students: A literature review. The William & Mary Educational Review1(1), p.7.


[13] Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science331(6023), 1447-1451.

[14] Hausmann, L. R., Schofield, J. W., & Woods, R. L. (2007). Sense of belonging as a predictor of intentions to persist among African American and White first-year college students. Research in higher education48(7), 803-839.murphy

[15] Moore, J., Sanders, J. and Higham, L., 2013. Literature review of research into widening participation to higher education. Report to HEFCE and OFFA. AimHigher Research & Consultancy Network.

[16] Brady, S.T., Cohen, G.L., Jarvis, S.N. and Walton, G.M., 2020. A brief social-belonging intervention in college improves adult outcomes for black Americans. Science Advances6(18), p.eaay3689.

[17] Mountford-Zimdars, A., Sabri, D., Moore, J., Sanders, J., Jones, S., & Higham, L. (2015). Causes of differences in student outcomes (HEFCE).