Reduction in choice ‘would hit disadvantaged students hardest’

Report for MPs shows poorer students make decisions based on living costs and are more likely to live locally

November 1, 2021
Source: iStock

Disadvantaged students are much more likely to attend a local university to save on living costs, suggesting that any reduction in the number of English institutions or the courses that they offer would disproportionately affect the least affluent students, a new report says.

Thirty-four per cent of students on free school meals said that they plan to stay at home when they go to university, compared with 18 per cent of those not eligible, polling by Public First on behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group found.

The survey of 1,000 English pupils either about to enter their final year of schooling or enter university also found that 30 per cent of respondents whose parents had not attended university were planning to stay at home, compared with just 9 per cent of those who had both parents attend university.

The current Westminster government has sometimes indicated that it feels English higher education has expanded too widely and would like to see a reduction in the number of courses – with a heavier focus on science and technology than arts – and potentially even institutions.

However, the report Is university worth it? Young people’s motivations, aspirations and views on student finance states that “less affluent students benefit greatly from the range of options available to them locally – not just in terms of the institutions available, but also the diversity of courses”.

Respondents told the survey that staying at home would help them save on living costs: “It [the cost] definitely made me want to stay at home because it’s less debt”, one respondent said. The option to study for a “good job” near home was also most highly valued by less advantaged students, the report found.

Less than a quarter – 22 per cent – of students agreed that there should be a limit on the number of students who can go to university each year, another policy reportedly being explored by the current government.

Asked whether they thought university would be worth all the debt they would accumulate, two-thirds of the respondents answered “yes”, whereas only 5 per cent answered “no”.

Help to get “a job in a career that I want to pursue” was the most regularly selected reason for going to university, with 63 per cent choosing this option, followed by wanting to become better educated, selected by 41 per cent, and loving their subject (39 per cent).

The report noted that a chosen career did not necessarily equate to earning more money – only 29 per cent chose this option – but that students wanted a job that was fulfilling.

The survey showed that disadvantaged students were more likely to say they were driven by career choice: 71 per cent of those on free school meals said this, compared with 61 per cent of those not on free school meals.

When asked to choose their preferred options to reform student finance from a list, the most popular were reducing tuition fees to £7,500 per year and reducing the interest charged on loans. More than three-quarters of students thought that the current interest rate charged on student loans was unfair.

Daniel Zeichner, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group, said students understood that university was expensive, but they could see the benefits.

“Far from trying to close down what some describe as ‘low-value’ courses, we should promote student choice and celebrate and support the transformational role that all our universities play,” he said. “Policymakers need to catch up with those on the ground who actually know what it’s like to be left behind.”

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