Study finds increasing pressure on high school students to attend university, compounding mental ill-health

Study finds increasing pressure on high school students to attend university, compounding mental ill-health
  • PublishedDecember 20, 2023

Young people are facing increasing pressure to attend university even if it is not required for their desired career, which can compound their mental ill-health, new research has found.

Key points:

  • The experience of 22 students from high school through to further education and work has been examined by researchers
  • Researcher Kristina Sincock says while university is a “perfect option” it is “not for everybody”
  • Dr Sincock says it would be beneficial for there to be a change to society seeing TAFE as a “second-tier option”  

Kristina Sincock from the University of Newcastle is the co-author of a new research article entitled Pressure To Attend University: Beyond Narrow Conceptions of Pathways to a “Good Life’,’ which has examined the transition of 22 young people from school into further education and employment.

“We were a bit surprised that there was so much talk of this pressure to go to uni, we didn’t expect that to be so strong, and as well as that we were surprised by the talk about mental ill-health,” she said. 

“We didn’t realise we’d see that clear connection between this pressure that they feel at school and during that difficult time of their adolescence and then even going into the first year of uni.”

Participants reported feeling “burnt out” and “overwhelmed”. 

“I felt like I was so pressured to do the best and I felt like I wasn’t the best … then I’d get anxiety about not being as good as everyone thinks I am,” one student told the researchers.

“That’s why I really wanted to do this interview, because I wanted to put it out there that high school is not the be-all, end-all … getting that high HSC mark isn’t the be-all, end-all.”

Participants told researchers that career education was most useful when it was attuned to their individual situation.

One student, who aspired to become a chef from a young age, said he was told by teachers “cheffing’s a horrible job”.

“Almost every teacher at my school wanted to push me into their career path, [and I was told], ‘You’re very smart … you should go to uni’ [otherwise I] might not become successful … They always pushed me towards university. Regardless of what my feelings were to be honest, I never felt truly supported by my career adviser.”

Dr Sincock said she acknowledged that university was a “perfect option” for many students and they were not suggesting that teachers or advisors should encourage students not to attend, but rather that it was “not for everybody, and don’t feel bad if you don’t get in”.

“A lot of people talked about that continued pressure and you’ve got to do well and your life is not going to work out if you don’t get a good ATAR and then get into uni and get a good degree,” she said. 

“University isn’t everything, so perhaps doing something vocational or going to TAFE might work for you as well.” 

The article finds that students should be offered “impartial information about their post-school options and be equipped to better understand the pathways that will best suit their passions and interests”.

Dr Sincock said Australian students needed to have better career education at school.

“We’re not saying that the teachers aren’t doing the best they can with the time and resources that are available to them, I think they are, but I think it’s just not a priority in terms of funding,” she said. 

“If kids have a better awareness about what was out there and all the different options, maybe the pressure to go to uni wouldn’t be so prevalent.”

In her first interview with researchers, a Year 11 student who went on to graduate from TAFE shared her view of the perception of university compared to other pathways. 

“Personally, I’ve just always pictured uni, like, I don’t know, being more successful. If you do uni then you’ll be more successful afterwards compared to if you just did TAFE or an apprenticeship,” she said. 

Dr Sincock said it would be beneficial for there to be a change to society’s “narrative around TAFE”.  

“It’s seen as a second-tier option that if you are smart you go to uni and if you’re not you go and do a TAFE course or apprenticeship … and it’s not true,” she said.

“That is a broad societal thing and I don’t know how you overcome that.”

This sentiment is shared by Penne Dawe, the CEO of the not-for-profit Australian Centre for Career Education (ACCE) and a trainer of career practitioners, who was not involved in the research. 

She said it was not within the standards of the profession to direct a child towards higher education over vocational study, but acknowledged people had a perception about vocational training. 

The perception and status of vocational education and training is the subject of an inquiry the ACCE has made a submission to. 

“There is a perception, and sometimes it’s amongst parents and certain schools might certainly promote it, that the only pathway to success is higher education, and that’s not the case,” Ms Dawe said.

“It’s certainly something that we need to change in terms of perception in Australia.”

Ms Dawe said the ratio of career counsellors to students was poor, meaning not a lot of specific guidance could happen.

“The issue we have in Australia is that we don’t have a career education subject in our curriculum, which doesn’t give a lot of space and time for that to occur,” she said.

“It’s actually a lifelong journey that should be happening throughout school.”

Dr Sincock said her advice to the parents and guardians of recent high school graduates would be to listen.

“Listen to what the young people around you actually want, rather than making them feel like if they don’t make the right decision now they will waste their lives and end up with no career. There is time,” she said.


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