Cost is the big deterrent for would-be students

Survey finds those from poorer backgrounds are likely to have a poorer experience, writes Rebecca Attwood

November 19, 2009

The cost of going to university is the number-one deterrent for people who apply to but do not enter higher education, a study tracking thousands of students has found.

Futuretrack is following the "Class of 2009" over five years, from when they apply to university until two years after they graduate. Only the National Student Survey is bigger, but Futuretrack is the most detailed, asking participants more than 300 questions.

Findings from the second phase, published this week, show that among students who applied to but did not enter higher education, cost was the biggest factor. Almost 40 per cent were put off by the cost, and 32 per cent were put off by the prospect of incurring debt.

The results coincide with a second study, by the Institute of Employment Studies for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which found that about a third of young people intending to apply to higher education are so concerned about costs that they have questioned their plans, and that many of these are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In its first phase, the Futuretrack study surveyed 130,000 people as they applied to higher education; in its second, it surveyed 50,000 full-time students after their first year.

Its findings reveal significant inequalities in the student experience.

Students from poorer groups were more likely than their better-off peers to attend a less-selective university, to live at home while studying, to be poorly informed about higher education and to be worried about repaying loans and debts.

They also work longer hours to earn money during term time.

The study, conducted by a team led by Kate Purcell at the Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick, says the findings raise questions about whether all students have access to the same higher education experience.

Paid work was associated with less involvement in extracurricular activities, fewer hours of academic study, and less satisfaction among students.

And you are ...?

Overall, participants were very positive about the tuition and learning support they received, with more than 80 per cent agreeing that it was mostly excellent. However, up to 40 per cent said that "hardly anyone" on the academic staff knew their name, more than a fifth said the information and support for new students had not been very good, and about a third considered the work they had been allocated to have been excessive.

On average, students who did paid work in their first year worked for nine hours a week. The average ranged from four hours to 12 hours for different disciplines.

When it comes to academic study, the survey shows that learning is not a full-time occupation for most. On average, students spent about 15 hours a week in timetabled lessons and 13 hours on private study.

Only students studying medicine and dentistry, and architecture, building and planning studied for the equivalent of a 35-hour week or more.

Issues affecting different ethnic groups are also raised: for example, just 55 per cent of black university applicants of African origin completed a year in higher education.

Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, said it was "no surprise" that costs were a deterrent "given that students can expect to graduate with over £20,000 of debt".

"This needs to be borne in mind by the independent review (of tuition fees and funding) when vice-chancellors are applying pressure for even higher fees," he said.

Evidence for policymakers

The research was funded by the Higher Education Careers Service Unit, a charity. Jane Artess, its director of research, said the survey had produced strong evidence that would give "a real steer" to policymakers.

"In particular, we now have evidence that the higher education experience really does differ according to the type of institution and subject you choose, and also on the basis of socio-economic background.

"It is not as simple as saying that particular class groups experience higher education in similar ways - rather that factors associated with age, ethnicity, schools attended previously, parental/family knowledge of higher education, and the extent of part-time working while studying, contribute to shaping the ways in which students approach their higher education.

"All these things look likely to have an impact on ultimate outcomes, too."


- Student satisfaction

Those studying physical sciences, history and philosophy, medicine and dentistry and languages were most satisfied. Students of business and business administration, architecture, building and planning and mass communication were the least satisfied. Satisfaction was 85 per cent at the most selective universities, and 75 per cent at lower-tariff institutions.

- Sense of belonging

Forty per cent of students at the highest-tariff universities reported that hardly anyone on the academic staff knew their name. This compared with just 9 per cent of students at general higher education colleges.

- Accommodation

Forty-eight per cent of students at lower-tariff universities live at home, compared with just 14 per cent at the most selective universities.

- Dropping out

Some 3 per cent of students started but did not complete a year in higher education.

- Information

Students who changed courses, dropped out or did not go into higher education said they did not have enough information when they made their choices.

- Paid work

Students studying social science combined with arts, mass communication, and education were most likely to do more than 16 hours of paid work a week.

- Academic work

Students in linguistics and Classics, history and philosophy, and mass communication reported studying the least.

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