Analysis: What keeps a student home?

March 23, 2001

Claire Sanders reports on how fear of debt has forced more students to live at home, and THES correspondents (below) explore support schemes outside the UK.

Between 1997 and 1999, there was a 40 per cent rise in the number of first-year full-time students living with their parents, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. About 20 per cent of students now live at home.

Surveys paint a picture of frugal students, reliant on their parents and long hours at paid work to keep debts down. Many feel their social life suffers and that their choice of university is limited. A big proportion are ethnic minority students, particularly Asians.

A survey by MORI for the student accommodation provider Unite found that 21 per cent of respondents lived with their parents. MORI surveyed 1,103 full-time university undergraduate and postgraduate students at 22 universities last autumn.

Money had played a big role in the decision of 58 per cent of these students to live at home. Almost a third said they would be in halls or rented accommodation if they had a grant, and 23 per cent would have left home if it were not for fees. Just over a quarter ( per cent) said they expected to be debt-free at the end of their course -suggesting that fear of debt may have been a key reason in their choosing to live at home.

Stay-at-home students featured in a report for the Department for Education and Employment, Changing Student Finances , by Claire Callender and Martin Kemp of South Bank University. The survey was conducted in 1998-99 -the year fees were introduced and the last year of grants.

Whether a student lived with their parents was closely linked to whether they had a student loan. Loan take-up was lowest among four groups: ethnic minorities; students living with their parents; students on short courses; and students living in London. Forty per cent of Asian students lived with their parents, compared with 17 per cent of all students.

"We are not yet clear whether students are living at home because they do not want to take out a loan or whether they have not taken out a loan because their parents subsidise them and they do not need to," Professor Callender said. Only 51 per cent of Asian students had a loan, and Asians borrowed the smallest amounts - £1,017 on average.

"This low take-up may be explained partly by these students' lifestyles," the report said. "Some Asian students had lifestyles that involved lower expenditure, particularly on entertainment such as going to pubs, clubs or discos. Asian students' expenditure on this was the lowest of all ethnic groups and per cent less than white students' expenditure."

Professor Callender argues that the low take-up may be because some of these students are Muslim, who have religious objections to borrowing money on which interest is paid. "This important issue has been overlooked by policy-makers," she said.

Of students living with their parents, 59 per cent had no student loan and had borrowed small amounts - £1,036 on average. "In places where living costs are very high, there seems to be a polarisation of students. In London, this polarisation is between those who can afford to leave home and go to university in London and those who have to live at home if they want to attend a London university," Professor Callender said.

Her report found that one in five students whose parents were assessed to make a fee contribution did not get the full assessed amount from their parents, with an average shortfall of £579. Most made this up with student loans even though loans are meant to cover just living costs. In addition, three in ten students did not get the full assessed parental contribution towards their grants, with a mean shortfall of £719. Students at home got much less money from parents than other groups of students, but then 70 per cent of them paid nothing towards housing costs.

They had the lowest average income, £3,933, and the lowest expenditure. Their spending amounted to an average of £5,166.

They were also the most likely to work. Of full-timers living with their parents, three-quarters had jobs in the academic year, and they earned twice that of students living independently because they tended to work for the same employer for longer hours.

One in ten full-time students reported that a university's closeness to their home had been an important consideration.


HOMELY ATTRACTIONS

Shahid Hussain is a second-year politics student at Leicester University.

"The first reason why I am studying at home is financial," Mr Hussain said. He was eligible for tuition fees and "tough choices had to be made".

But there are also social and cultural reasons. "My brother and sister are also students, and all three of us live at home. I do not feel I miss out socially. I do not go on many pub crawls, but I still have a good time."

Nor does he feel he has suffered academically. "I particularly wanted to do the politics course at Leicester. It got 23 out of 24 when it was assessed by the Quality Assurance Agency and is a very friendly and international department. I had exactly what I wanted on my doorstep."

He is philosophical about debt, misquoting Benjamin Franklin. "There are two certainties in life - taxes and debt. By studying at home, I am delaying the inevitable just a little bit". He has a loan of Pounds 2,500, and he has worked for pay in term-time and in the holidays.

He can see benefits to studying away from home. "It creates a sense of independence and gives you a broader perspective on who you are. Equally, I have friends who have initially studied away and they have been flocking back. I think they have faced financial pressures."

Joanne Houlders is a first-year theology, education and English student at Birmingham University.

"I split with my partner last year and decided to do a degree. I would have liked to study away from home but couldn't afford to," Ms Houlders said. She had paid fees of £1,075 and taken a loan of £2,500.

"I am worried about the debt and am grateful that I do not pay rent or for food. My parents don't mind me having friends round, but I am always aware they have to get up and go to work in the morning, and it is restrictive."

Ms Houlders is involved in student life through running the Christian Union at the university.

She has worked as an administrator at a mental health clinic to make money. "I've mainly worked in the holidays so my studies have not been too badly hit," she said.

Shabul Haque is a final-year computing and business student at London Guildhall University.

"I am studying from home largely because I broke my ankle during clearing and had to study somewhere I could get to by bus!" But Mr Haque also faces financial pressure. "My father is not working and has asthma and is really very ill. I do not pay rent or for food, and I do not feel guilty about that as my parents are happy to pay that. But I would never ask for anything extra - I would feel terrible. If I had studied away from home, the expense would have been a headache."

He was not eligible to pay fees. In his first and third years, he took out his full loan entitlement -just under £3,000 in both cases. "I work in the university advice centre to make extra money," he said.

"There are many advantages to living at home," he said. "But I do feel I miss out on the social life. The main thing is that I am very happy with my course."

Marzana Serdous Ahmed is a final-year English and business information student at London Guildhall.

"The main reason I am living at home is that I could not afford to move out. Even if I moved outside London, it would still have been too expensive for me," Ms Serdous Ahmed said.

"I am worried by debt and have not taken out a student loan." She did not have to pay fees. She has done paid work in term-time and the holidays. She does not feel that her social life has been hit by staying at home.

Barry Brian is a first-year hospitality management with tourism student at Birmingham University.

"I chose to study from home for personal rather than financial reasons. And luckily Birmingham has the course I wanted to study," Mr Barry said.

He does not pay fees, but he has a student loan of nearly £3,000. "Paying back the student loan does not worry me so much, as I can do it when I am earning and at a low rate of interest. What worries me are credit-card debts and debts to the bank, and I am beginning to build them up."

He pays for food and lodging and works in term-time and the holidays. "I do not feel I miss out socially, as I can always sleep on friends' floors after a night out."


LOAN LOAD BITES IN US AND OZ, BUT BURDENS FALL IN GERMANY

United States

More young people in the United States are attending university than ever, and billions of dollars in financial aid is being made available, writes Jon Marcus .

But the system is nearing crisis. Less campus-based financial aid gets to the poorest students, as more goes to top-scoring applicants who may not be needy but are sought by universities keen to raise their league-table rankings.

University costs, which rise at double the rate of inflation, have outpaced federal grants. Loans far exceed grants as the means by which most people finance university education. The improved default rate on student loans - down from 22.4 per cent in 1990 to 6.9 per cent -follows draconian enforcement measures including confiscating the wages of borrowers. And tax breaks towards university tuition benefit middle-income families, not the poor.

The biggest problem has been a shift from needs-based to merit-based financial aid. "Merit has begun to displace access as the focus of policy-makers at the federal, state and institutional level," the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance said in a recent report to Congress. Since 1993, merit-based aid has risen 336 per cent in real terms, compared with just 88 per cent for needs-based aid. On average, the poorest students fall $3,800 short of what they need for university.

This follows years in which the bulk of financial aid has moved from grants to loans. In 1980, grants accounted for 55 per cent of all financial aid, loans 41 per cent. Today, grants comprise 40 per cent of aid, loans 59 per cent.

The results have been stark. In 1980, the poorest 25 per cent of students took one-fifth as many degrees as the richest 25 per cent. Now they earn barely one-eighth as many. The gap between whites and blacks has also grown.

Germany

After years of penny-pinching on student benefits, the German government this month passed a reform of the federal assistance act (Bafög), which will give more students, even those studying abroad, more money each month, writes Jennie Brookman .

From April, 445,000 of Germany's 1.8 million students - 81,000 more than before - will be eligible for up to €585 (£370) a month from the Bafög. The exact sum depends on parental wealth, but 40 per cent of recipients will get the full whack. Students are also allowed to earn €210 net a month in part-time jobs.

The aid is paid for the regular study period, usually nine semesters. But payments will be extended from four extra semesters to eight for women who have children while studying. The aid comes as one half grant, one half interest-free loan. The total loan cannot exceed €10,000. Repayments begin five years after graduation but low earners can grace.

Bafög will now be paid to students who complete their degrees in European Union countries or spend up to five semesters studying outside the EU as long as they spend the first year in a German university.

All this costs an extra €665 million, taking total Bafog spending to €1.58 billion in the next two years. But the Social Democrat/ Green coalition government believes that higher education is worth the investment.

Even though German students pay no tuition fees, a survey by the Higher Education Information Service signalled a worrying fall in interest in higher education. In 1999, just 68 per cent of young Germans eligible for university chose to go, compared with 82 per cent in 1990.

Australia

Increasing numbers of Australia's 700,000 university students live in poverty, and the situation is worsening because of declining financial support from the federal government, writes Geoff Maslen .

The National Union of Students says the gulf between rich and poor is stark. The gap was in danger of becoming "a chasm", said the union's national welfare officer, Rachel Thomson, quoting a submission by the Australian Council of Social Services to the federal government. "It often seems as though students are being punished for pursuing higher education," she said. "Significant numbers of full-time students work more than 20 hours a week, but most have little choice."

More students than ever take on part-time work to supplement the inadequate income support payments, she said. Prime minister John Howard's idea of a fair and equal Australia had lost its shine, she said, challenging him to try to live on the A$290 (£101) a week base federal allowance, with no rent assistance or other aid.

A report last July by Melbourne University's Centre for the Study of Higher Education noted that first-year students spent less time on their studies and more hours a week working for money than they had five years before.

A 1999 survey of 2,600 full-time students at seven universities found that the number working part-time had risen sharply while the hours spent on campus had fallen since a similar survey was undertaken in 1994.

It said working students demanded public debate. The phenomenon of " de facto part-time study" by full-time students was not exclusive to first-years but was a big issue for them, given the chance of many dropping out, the report said.

It said that although on average students worked 12.5 hours a week, 40 per cent said they worked up to 20 hours. For more than one in three first-years, part-time work was their only or the main source of income. Fewer students were spending five days a week at university, and average course contact hours had fallen.

 

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