At least one in four qualified but disadvantaged students doubt that they will go to university because of debt, according to a Universities UK survey released today. This is the first clear evidence that the cost of higher education is undermining the government's 50 per cent participation target.
The survey found that per cent of students studying for a university entry qualification were unlikely to get there because they needed to find a job, feared debt and did not think going to university was worth the cost.
The students were from lower social classes and studying at further education colleges.
Diana Green, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University and chair of the survey's steering group, said: "This is the first hard evidence of what we already knew anecdotally - that debt aversion has the greatest impact on the participation of the very groups the government most wants to attract into higher education."
The survey, by Claire Callender at South Bank University, has been released early by UUK to inform the debate on student funding before the government produces its strategy paper in January. The study concludes that grants rather than loans would attract more under-represented groups to higher education.
Just under 2,000 UK school leavers and further education college students in their final year of a university entry qualification were asked about their attitudes to debt and higher education between March and July this year.
Eighty-four per cent believed that debt deterred entry to higher education and 83 per cent thought one of the worst aspects of going to university was being in debt.
Fifteen per cent of students said they would definitely not go to university and 12 per cent were undecided. Many of the latter had a sibling or a partner already in higher education. "It may be that families can only afford to support one child at university," Professor Callender said.
Those most fearful of debt were Muslims, especially Asians, black and other minority students, those with family responsibilities and those from lower social classes. However, a school or FE student from an ethnic-minority background was still 8.5 times more likely to go into higher education than a comparable white student.
"Poorer and ethnic-minority students are restricted in their choice of university and course, as many opt for local universities, shorter courses and highly vocational subjects," Professor Green said.
Those least fearful of debt were generally males at independent schools and from families in the highest social classes. Independent school pupils were 20 times more likely to enter higher education than those from FE colleges.
A separate survey on student attitudes to debt and term-time working, also released by UUK this week, showed that while many accepted debt as normal, most thought it deterred people from going into higher education.
The survey, based on a questionnaire completed by 1,500 final-year students from seven universities, found that almost half did paid work in term time in the first and second years, with the figure falling slightly in the third year.
Almost two-thirds of students who worked in term time did so for 11 or more more hours a week; about 15 per cent worked more than 21 hours a week. However, at two of the old universities, less than half the students worked 11 or more hours a week. Mature students and those from poorer families worked because their families could not support them.
Two out of five students said that their term-time work had an adverse affect on their coursework and exam marks.
• Final-year medical students face debts of up to £42,500, a British Medical Association survey of 1,100 students has found. The average debt was £13,000, a rise of 12.5 per cent on last year. Seventy per cent of students came from professional or managerial backgrounds. Those from poorer backgrounds had higher debts.
Lone-parent student urges return to grants
Marilyn Andrew is a single parent with two children. She is on a pre-access course in youth and community social work at Tower Hamlets College, while claiming income support.
Next year she plans to take an access course and hopes to enter a social-work degree course. "I left school at 16 and I am making up for lost time."
She said: "I am keen to qualify as a social worker but worried about the cost. I don't want debt hanging over me, not with the children to consider.
"Many people say I may have to do the degree part time, but I'm worried I may not be able to do that locally, so it will prolong my studies," she said.
"The government must reintroduce grants. The current funding system sends out the message that education is not for everyone - people like me are being driven out."