Students happy to invest in future

Survey finds debt has soared but undergraduates feel it is acceptable. Rebecca Attwood reports

September 4, 2008

Student debt has soared, but most undergraduates feel confident that they are making a sound financial investment in their future career by taking degrees, according to the results of an exclusive Sodexo-Times Higher Education survey.

More than 2,000 full-time students from 139 institutions were polled for the third University Lifestyle Survey, a biennial study into students' daily lives that will be published in more detail in next week's Times Higher Education.

A total of 63 per cent expect to be more than £10,000 in debt by the time they graduate, up from 39 per cent in 2006, when the last survey was conducted. Some 41 per cent expect to owe more than £15,000, and 18 per cent £20,000 or more - compared with 15 per cent and 4 per cent respectively in 2006.

But while the amount of debt has risen significantly since the introduction of top-up fees, more than half of students - 64 per cent - feel confident that they will see a return on their investment. The findings come as the Government prepares for next year's review of the level of student tuition fees.

Some per cent feel their debt is definitely acceptable as an investment in their future career, and 37 per cent think it probably is.

Confidence varies according to the subject studied - 44 per cent of arts and humanities undergraduates are not convinced that their debts are acceptable, against 25 per cent of those studying medicine and related subjects.

Money is not students' biggest worry. Students are predominantly concerned about their results. The second biggest area of angst is how to balance work, academic study and social commitments.

Day-to-day financial worries are the greatest source of anxiety for 13 per cent of students. Some 42 per cent of the group are concerned about the amount they will owe when they graduate, although this is the biggest worry for 6 per cent.

Meanwhile, a report from the National Union of Students this week argues that the current system of grants and fees is socially regressive and harmful to learning.

It cites forthcoming research by Claire Callender, professor of higher education policy at Birkbeck, University of London, which indicates that a two-tier system of bursaries is emerging.

Professor Callender found that the average needs-based bursary for the poorest students in the Russell Group of research-led universities was £1,791, compared with £680 in the Million+ group of post-1992 universities.

In the Russell Group, 77 per cent of bursaries were awarded on the basis of financial need, against 45 per cent in the Million+ group.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, said: "It is ironic that universities that deliver the Government's widening participation agenda end up with less money. This is why we need a holistic funding review that challenges inequities in the current system."

The NUS report, Broke and Broken: A Critique of the Higher Education Funding System, says that if the Government allows a rise in fees, students will be taking huge financial risks with no guarantee of success, and student borrowing will exceed the graduate premium in some subjects. The gap between richer and poorer institutions will widen, lecturers will face even more pressure to respond to students' demands, and students will have to work harder to support themselves, it predicts.

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