Student lifestyle survey - More debt, more paid work, more pressure...less alcohol

The fifth biennial Sodexo-Times Higher Education University Lifestyle Survey is the last to quiz students under the lower tuition fees regime - and it reveals some telling views on the changing nature of the sector. Worries about debt have fallen as the current cohort realise what a comparatively good deal they have, yet it is clear that the dire state of the economy is affecting lifestyle choices. However some things - such as the paltry time spent in the library - never change. Jack Grove reports

March 8, 2012

Financial considerations: impact of £9,000 annual tuition fees

A quarter of students (26 per cent) would not have gone to university if they had had to pay £9,000 tuition fees, the poll reveals.

Although higher fees have not stopped sixth-formers applying to university, according to January's application figures, the Sodexo-THE survey shows that many current undergraduates would have baulked at the prospect of taking on greater levels of graduate debt.

However, more than two-fifths of students (41 per cent) said the tuition-fee hike would have made no difference to their choices.

Students from newer universities were far more likely to say they would not have undertaken a degree course if they had faced increased charges - 35 per cent said they would not, compared with 16 per cent of students at older institutions.

Medics were the least likely to reconsider their selection in light of higher fees - 60 per cent said they would not have chosen differently.

Surprisingly, those studying business and management were far less sure, with only 25 per cent saying they would have stuck with their chosen subject; 35 per cent of arts and humanities students said the same.

Other responses to the prospect of higher fees included choosing a different university but a similar course (10 per cent), a different university and course (3 per cent) and sticking with the same university but taking a different course (2 per cent).

More than half of respondents (51 per cent) said they would expect more from their lecturers if they were paying £9,000 a year, while 25 per cent said higher fees would motivate them to study more.

Only 17 per cent of students felt that higher tuition fees would have no major effect on their approach to university life.

Chart 2

The new frugality: trimming costs of living

Students may be spending less time in the bar due to cash constraints, the survey suggests.

Many seemed to be cutting back their alcohol intake - only 22 per cent of undergraduates reported drinking more than 11 units a week (equivalent to about five and a half pints of beer), compared with 28 per cent in 2010 and 33 per cent in 2008.

Half of all students polled also said they had been forced to change their diet due to financial hardship, up from 42 per cent in 2010.

Of those changing their eating habits, 62 per cent felt they ate more unhealthy foods, with the rest managing to cut costs without eating less nutritious meals.

The most popular choices were pasta dishes, a relatively cheap option, with 35 per cent saying bolognese and other similar dishes were their most regularly cooked meal.

The proportion of those choosing to live with their parents or family rose again, up to 18 per cent from 17 per cent in 2010 and 13 per cent in 2008, at an average monthly cost of £96.10 - less than a fifth of the average cost of living in a catered hall (£542.80).

Online: social media and study

Student reliance on the internet, computers and social media was repeatedly highlighted by the survey.

Wi-fi access was the number one must-have in student accommodation, with 77 per cent of undergraduates listing it in their top five requirements, ahead of laundry facilities (66 per cent) and a shared social space (65 per cent).

Students spent an average of 11.4 hours a week logged on to social networking sites, 8.6 hours studying online and another 7 hours using the internet for shopping and other personal interests.

With an extra 2.6 hours spent playing computer games, on average, students spent almost 30 hours a week in front of a computer - compared with an average of 4.9 hours spent in the library.

A total of 17 per cent also admitted that they never usually visited the library in a working week, whereas almost one in three spent less than 2 hours there each week.

Students on arts and humanities courses were among the least likely to spend 5 or more hours per week in the library, with just 30 per cent doing so. Meanwhile, 34 per cent of science and engineering students spent that amount of time there, 40 per cent of business students, and for law undergraduates the figure rose to 49 per cent.

However, despite their appetite for the internet, the prospect of more online lectures did not appeal to students. More than half (57 per cent) did not want more, compared with just 30 per cent who thought it was a good idea.

Hire concerns: post-study fears

The faltering state of the UK economy is continuing to worry today's students.

With many employers demanding at least a 2:1, it is perhaps unsurprising that undergraduates' number one anxiety was achieving a good degree.

Seventy-two per cent of students listed this issue in their top five concerns - up from 70 per cent in 2008 and 61 per cent in 2004, when graduates' employment prospects looked far rosier.

Balancing academic, social and work commitments was also a major worry for students, with 68 per cent saying it concerned them deeply, as opposed to 60 per cent in 2008 and just 41 per cent in 2004.

Concerns about finding a job after graduation naturally troubled undergraduates - although perhaps not as much as to be expected - with 56 per cent worried about their future employment prospects, up from 46 per cent two years ago and 48 per cent in 2004.

Only 31 per cent said they worried about their graduate debts, down from 37 per cent in 2010 and 42 per cent in 2008. With next year's cohort taking on predicted debts of £50,000 or more, annual fees of nearer £3,000 did not seem so daunting.

Investing in the future: taking on debt and work

With future students set to rack up far higher debts, today's undergraduates see their student loans as a comparatively acceptable investment in their future.

Exactly three-quarters of students said university debts were "definitely" or "probably" a worthwhile investment - up from 67 per cent in 2010 and 64 per cent in 2008.

Those doing health-related subjects were least likely to question their investment in higher education, with just 14 per cent not sure if it represented a smart financial move.

In comparison, 21 per cent of law students and 32 per cent of arts and humanities undergraduates doubted the financial wisdom of taking on their debt.

Almost a third of students (30 per cent) expected to graduate with debts of £20,000 or more, compared with just 2 per cent of students in 2004 when top-up fees were passed into law.

A further 32 per cent in the current survey expected to finish their studies with debts of £10,000 to £20,000.

A quarter of students polled had a part-time job in term-time and worked an average of 13.2 hours a week.

However, more than one in 10 students (12 per cent) worked 21 hours or more, with students from newer universities working on average longer hours (14.1 hours a week) compared with those at traditional institutions (11.5 hours a week).

Chart 3

Contact and take-up: other results

• Most students were happy with their contact time with lecturers. Fifty-eight per cent said they had enough time with staff, but 37 per cent wanted more

• Most students skipped at least one meal a week. Fifty-seven per cent missed breakfast at least once a week, 55 per cent lunch, but only 20 per cent ever missed their evening meal

• More than a third of students (38 per cent) skipped at least one lecture a week, although this was a significant improvement on the 48 per cent who admitted missing classes in 2010

• A good impression from an open day was the most-cited non-academic reason for choosing a particular university, with 53 per cent listing it. Thirty-four per cent said they liked the campus environment and 12 per cent mentioned sports facilities.

Chart 4

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