Research shows how students imagine their futures on A-level results day

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Students in the Forum

In the moment when current school-leavers open their A-Level results letters today, new imagined futures will be conjured into existence, illuminating in new and sometimes unexpected ways the path that leads beyond the present.

In this moment, young people may confirm imaginings of a future already well-planned through years of careful preparation for university and beyond into careers.

Others will experience the jarring uncertainty of plans going awry, if their results do not offer safe passage into the future that they had anticipated inhabiting in September. Others still will be pleasantly surprised and start the entrepreneurial process of ‘bidding up’ on their results to find a better offer for university.

Whether positive or negative, or somewhere in between, the results delivered to hopeful young people today are even less certain in their meaning and implications than was the case in the recent past.  

In recent years I have led on a research project tracking the movements, imaginations and aspirations of young people in rural and urban settings across the UK, as they complete secondary education and moved on – whether to higher education, employment, unemployment or elsewhere.  

Our aim was to grasp how notions of space, schooling, and aspiration shape young people’s imaginings of what their futures will look like.  

In its simplest form, the research asked young people coming out of school, “What do you want to do with your lives?” Ironically, this broad question can be empowering and anxiety-inducing at the same time.  

Key findings from our data collection showed that young people maintain multiple imaginings of the future in order to account for the increased uncertainty that they experience in their lives. Sometimes these imaginings involve contradictory futures – for example, going to university and not going to university – but these contrasts make perfect sense in a world where the future is increasingly unpredictable.  

Key findings from our data collection showed that young people maintain multiple imaginings of the future in order to account for the increased uncertainty that they experience in their lives.

Patrick Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Education, Oxford Brookes University

The uncertain nature of the current geo-political and economic landscape has been described by some as ‘VUCA’ – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. The ‘VUCA’ world waiting for young people after schooling may offer multiple exciting opportunities for the future. However, there is an increasing disconnect between the linear routes into the future championed through schooling (i.e. the idea that qualifications lead to future employment or fulfilment), and the more complex and uncertain reality experienced by young people.

It is against this VUCA background that young school-leavers have been making sense of the future for themselves, coping with broader societal uncertainties in tandem with their own uncertain transitions into adulthood.  

The brave new world of clearing at universities is one outcome of the VUCA conditions under which we now live. Clearing has also served to exacerbate the unexpected for school leavers, where immediate imaginings of the future can be forged in the space of a single phone call to a university administrator. Traditionally, Clearing was about jostling to find a place at university if your results weren’t quite what you hoped for.  

Now, with no cap on student recruitment, Clearing can represent an opportunity for students to make a deal work for them. Competition among universities has never been greater, and in the role of students as potential future customers for higher education, students are now able to flex financial as well as academic muscle to seek brighter university futures than they might have previously imagined.  

This process is made more volatile still by the rapid increase in the number of unconditional offers made to students wanting to go to university. UCAS suggest that this figure increased by 40% between 2016-2017, from 36,825 to 51,615. This shift raises significant questions for school-leavers now imagining a future where their final performance at A-level has become irrelevant to their ability to get into university.  

The future-orientation of everyday school life and the promise of certain rational-choice outcomes, from employment and higher education, suggest a range of futures that are relatively easy to anticipate.  

Right now however, the future is irregular. The freshest crop of A-level holders will today need to increasingly find productive ways to reckon with this irregularity as they make their way towards the heat-haze horizon of a future as yet unset.

Patrick Alexander is a Senior Lecturer in Education in the School of Education at Oxford Brookes University.