Thinking behaviourally about higher education

By Susannah Hume, King’s College London & Behavioural Insights Team | 

Small things can have a big impact on our lives. A transport museum visit might change the course of a young person’s life by inspiring them to become a train driver, while for another watching CSI might spark the idea of a career in forensics. Psychologists have known this for a while–that the choices we make are influenced by a complex array of factors, many of which we might not even notice.

However, when we’re designing policies, we often don’t consider these factors–we assume that the people we’re trying to influence are ‘rational’ in the economic sense: they weigh up the pros and cons of all their options before choosing that which, on balance, is best for them. And if the choices made don’t align with what we expect, then we look at the big levers for solutions: regulation, funding and fees, and information.

We offer a bursary to the young person who wants to be a train driver to apply their skills to an engineering degree instead; or tell the young person who’s applied to a forensic science course that studying chemistry will give them more flexibility.

And nothing changes.

What we’ve assumed is an information gap is actually something else–not only about the information itself, but the way in which it was given, and often the context in which it was received. Difficult-to-imagine future financial benefits listed on a website cannot compete with the feeling of standing in the driver’s cab of a museum train, imagining the horizon stretching out in front of you.

Behavioural insights and BIT

Whilst our behaviour may not seem rational to an Econ (or policy-maker), these ‘irrationalities’ can be remarkably consistent across individuals. Often, they result from systematic rules of thumb–‘heuristics’–that we use to simplify complicated decisions we face. The work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky systematised and quantified some of these systematic deviations from the predictions of standard microeconomic models, while the work of Thaler and Sunstein, which Anne-Marie has already mentioned, started the work of bridging the gap between the academic insights and their practical applications.

The Behavioural Insights Team, which started life in 2010 inside No. 10 Downing Street, was the world’s first government institution dedicated to systematically applying these insights from the behavioural sciences to improve public policy. We’re now a social purpose company with offices around the world, working in almost every policy area, and with 20 governments worldwide. Our approach has two pillars:

  1. Thinking differently about how people interact with public services; and
  2. Raising the standard of evaluation applied to policy or service changes, be they big or small. Our CEO, David Halpern, is also the government’s chief advisor on the What Works programme.

A case study on university aspirations

The need to both think differently and test interventions was illustrated by a project we ran with the Somerset Challenge in 2014, investigating ways to raise university aspirations among sixth form students in the county. Working with a collection of secondary schools in Somerset we ran a study to test three interventions:

  • providing young people with information about the costs and benefits of attending university;
  • providing the same information to their parents; and
  • giving students a short talk from a former student from their area who went to university.

Perhaps at this point you would be willing to pause and think about which of the three approaches above you expect to be successful, or any that you think might not have been. Once you’ve fixed your prediction in mind, read on!

We ran this study as a Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT – a topic for a forthcoming blog post), which meant that any difference in aspiration we observed following the interventions could be attributed to the intervention they received.

Firstly, the talk significantly increased students’ interest in university and their likelihood of applying (well done if you picked that!). Further analysis revealed that this was driven by the belief that attending university would result in better friends and a more interesting life, but these students also recalled key elements of the financial information.

However, providing parents with information cards had no effect on students’ interest in attending university, while giving the same information to students actually made them less interested in attending.

If you picked that–and you haven’t already read the report–very well done. We certainly didn’t develop these cards with the expectation that they would discourage young people from university; in fact, we thought that perhaps because of the recent tuition fee increase, there might be a genuine information gap about the benefits of university that needed correcting.

However, what the results show is that the how and who of delivery may matter as much–if not more–than the content. The inspirational speaker, who was from the same background as the students he was speaking to, was able to address perceived social and identity-related barriers to university through a medium the students could relate to, and provided the financial information within this context. The cards, which just addressed financial barriers, were not able to do that.

What’s next?

Since that first trial, we’ve also published the results from another RCT, where we increased applications and acceptances by disadvantaged young people to highly selective universities, at a cost of just £45 per additional student who accepted a place. You can read more about that project here.

We’ll be writing more about the behavioural insights approach, the simple ways that we can tweak systems to help people persist and succeed in higher education, and the very exciting results from our collaboration with King’s College London over the coming months.

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