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Students should be told of university course job prospects, says commission

<span>Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA</span>
Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA

Students should be given more details about how the courses they study after leaving school might affect their employment prospects, it has been suggested, as figures show near-record numbers of 18-year-olds applying to university.

A review of research into the employment effects of higher and further education by the government’s Social Mobility Commission showed wide variations in earnings, with some courses failing to boost salaries, while the most lucrative courses for graduates often admitted few students in England from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Many of the more selective universities are top performers for boosting earnings but worst offenders for providing access to students from low socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Alun Francis, the commission’s interim chair. “To improve social mobility, we need these universities to do even more to improve access.

“We need to ensure prospective students are aware of the earnings implications of all their higher education and further education options, so they can make an informed choice, before applying.”

Related: Former education ministers attack plan to reduce vocational qualifications

Commentary accompanying the literature review said selective universities “would seem to be hindering social mobility” by admitting few students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

However, the report found that the most selective institutions – Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College London and the London School of Economics – had admitted many more disadvantaged students in recent years. It calculated a “rough estimate” of 31% of students at the four universities being previously eligible for free school meals, based on 2020-21 data.

The authors said it would take many years, until the most recent graduates reached age 30, to see what the long-term effects on their employment prospects would be.

The report also highlighted earlier findings that students from lower socialeconomic backgrounds were more often going to less selective universities than their better-off peers, even if they had the same exam grades, resulting in lower earnings in later life. “Of course, students may still choose these courses for other valid reasons but they need to be aware of the possible labour market implications,” the report stated.

The latest figures from the Ucas admissions services show that sixth-form students remain enthusiastic about going on to higher education.

Ucas said more than 41% of UK 18-year-olds applied for university places by its January deadline, slightly less than last year’s rate of 43% but higher than pre-pandemic levels. In January 2020, 39% of UK 18-year-olds had applied through Ucas for undergraduate courses.

The total number of applications by 18-year-olds to start courses in autumn was nearly 315,000, compared with 320,000 in 2022 and significantly higher than the 275,000 applicants at the same point in 2020.

Related: Job prospects vary widely for graduates in England, data shows

Looking at England alone, the rate of applications by sixth-form pupils fell from 44% last year to 42% this year, with Clare Marchant, Ucas’s chief executive, saying that “a slight recalibration” was expected after bumper numbers applying during the height of the Covid pandemic.

“Over the past five years the number of UK 18-year-old applicants has risen by 17% and we anticipate this upward trajectory will continue over the remainder of the decade,” Marchant said.

Across all age groups there was growth in applications for computing courses, but steep falls in applications for nursing and education training.

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, was critical of failures to encourage more women to take up apprenticeships in science, technology and engineering (Stem), citing figures that just 65,000 women had started Stem apprenticeships since 2016-17, compared with 522,000 by men.

“Both the lack of science teachers in our schools and dwindling apprenticeship opportunities are denying women opportunities to build the Stem careers of the future,” Phillipson said.