Going into higher education once meant leaving home and behaving badly, but a new survey paints a very different picture. Anna Fazackerley reports.
The popular stereotype of the carefree student who is as much concerned with his social life as he is with his academic timetable bears little resemblance to the experience of today's undergraduates, according to the Sodexho/ Times Higher university lifestyle survey.
Instead, students are preoccupied with the cost of their university education and their job prospects after graduation, as the more fun side of university life takes a firm back seat.
The survey, for which more than 2,000 full-time students across 30 universities were interviewed, provides a new insight into the motivations, stresses and lifestyles of undergraduate students in the UK, exploding many out-of-date preconceptions about modern life on campus.
It also suggests that many of the national policies targeted at undergraduates are based on an inaccurate stereotype of the student experience. The government's proposals for top-up fees in England, for example, presume that students are independent adults in charge of their own finances; the reality is that parents are increasingly having to bear the costs of higher education.
Media coverage of student finances has centred largely on the issue of debt on graduation, but the survey reveals that the majority of students face a day-to-day financial struggle. Many survive on a very low weekly income, with a minority living considerably below the poverty line.
The survey found that four in ten students have to live on £39 or less a week.
The survey shows that these financial pressures are changing the shape of university life.
A quarter of all students - more than ever before - are choosing to live at home while studying, which inevitably distances them from their institution. And four in ten students now need to take a part-time job during term time to support themselves.
With many of these students devoting a large number of hours each week to paid work, time for academic commitments and social activities is being squeezed.
This also means that student stress levels are on the increase.
Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students, told The Times Higher that the general public had a skewed view of student life.
She said: "People still believe that students can sit around in student bars deciding how they will change the world because they have so much time on their hands. That's simply not the case any more."
Two-fifths working part time to survive
Working during term time is the third most common form of financial support for students, the Sodexho/ Times Higher survey reveals.
Two in five students juggle a part-time job with their academic commitments, and these students are the most likely to suffer from stress.
Many student unions advise students not to undertake more than 15 hours of paid work a week because they will not be able to cope. But the survey reveals that one-third of students with part-time jobs during term time do 16 hours or more paid work a week. About one in ten of the part-time workers puts in more than 21 hours every week.
The survey shows that many of the students with the heaviest academic timetables work part time. Students studying science, engineering, business and management, law or medicine are more likely to rely on a part-time job than those studying arts, humanities or social sciences.
Part-time work has a major impact on students' lives. The survey found that those with part-time jobs are under considerably more pressure than those who don't work. They are more likely to be worried about all the big issues students list as concerns.
For instance, 64 per cent of students with jobs worry about achieving their desired degree classification, compared with 59 per cent of students without jobs. And 47 per cent are concerned about balancing their academic, work and social commitments compared with 36 per cent of students without jobs.
Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of students, said: "We are concerned about students who take on a huge number of hours during term time. There are stories about students working until 4am, then getting up for 9am lectures."
Both Oxford and Cambridge universities are firmly against part-time working, arguing that students in financial difficulty should apply for hardship funds instead. A spokesperson for Oxford said: "It is pretty much a rule for us, although some people break it. We have a very intensive workload, and we want students to have time to relax."
But the majority of institutions accept that many students need to have a part-time job. There are 80 student union job shops in the UK, which run a listings and advisory service for students.
Sean Ireton, the manager of the job shop at the University of Kent at Canterbury, said: "Part-time work is not about beer money now - it's rent and food. If you're going to widen participation you're going to have to have part-time work as part of student life."
Diane Hay, the head of the careers advisory service at Bath University, said: "Given that students have a financial need to work, we have a system that tries to ensure they don't overdo it."
But Carol Lomax, a senior counsellor at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: "Sometimes the difficulty arises when employers ask students to do extra hours. They don't want to lose their job, so they can't say no."
Love life is least of worries
Far from being absorbed with their personal problems or love lives, as might be expected of this age group, The Times Higher has found that the majority of students worry primarily about their job prospects and mounting debt.
The Sodexho/ Times Higher university lifestyle survey shows that the most common anxiety, shared by six in ten students, is achieving their desired degree result. Some 29 per cent listed this as their single biggest concern.
Half the respondents said they worried about finding a job after graduation, with 14 per cent listing this as their main concern.
Other top concerns are all related to jobs or money. Some 43 per cent of students worry about the amount of debt they will have at graduation, with 14 per cent stating this is their main fear. Some 41 per cent said they are stressed about balancing their academic, paid work and social commitments.
In contrast, more personal worries come much further down the list. Only one in ten students cited difficulty building or maintaining relationships, and one in ten reported feeling isolated.
Mark Phippen, the head of counselling at Cambridge University, who has worked in the sector for 20 years, said: "Students are aware of the size of the loans they are taking on, and so they see university as a serious business."
He added: "We see students who are getting stressed because they feel that everything hangs on their grades, and we try to stress that work-life balance is vital. Being at university isn't simply about getting the right grades."
This obsession with careers starts early. Students are more likely to be considering job prospects above anything else when deciding to go to university.
Some 39 per cent said their main reason for going to university was better career opportunities. The second most popular motivation, for 17 per cent, was wanting to go into a profession that required a degree.
Again, this strong focus on careers means that social life is no longer a major enticement for students when choosing a university. Only 3 per cent said that experiencing different ways of life had been their main motivation, and just 2 per cent cited having a good social life as the reason.
Almost half of full-timers live on less money per week than unemployed Going into higher education once meant leaving home and behaving badly, but a new survey paints a very different picture. Anna Fazackerley reports
More than a third of students survive on less than £40 a week, the Sodexho/ Times Higher survey shows.
For the first time, the survey asked students across the UK how much they are left to live on each week after paying for accommodation.
It found that an alarming 39 per cent of full-time students have £39 or less each week to pay for food, travel, textbooks, socialising and clothes. Worse still, 8 per cent have an average of £9.50 a week to survive on.
This is considerably less than the benefits provided to unemployed people.
Weekly income support for those aged between 18 and 24 years is £43.25, while those over 25 years old get £54.65.
The National Union of Students this week expressed outrage about the new data, saying that students could not be expected to manage on less than £10 a week.
At the other end of the scale, however, the survey found some significantly wealthier students.
Non-UK students are most likely to have an impressive budget. Almost one in five overseas students has an average of £150 per week after paying for accommodation. Some 11 per cent of students overall have this high average of £150 spending money.
The survey also shows that disposable income varies according to discipline.
Engineering students are the richest, with an average of £63 a week to live on, followed by law students, with an average of £59.70.
Science students have the least cash, with £52.50 a week to spend.
One in ten students studying medicine, science, maths and computing, or the social sciences has an average of £9.50 a week.
Leigh Bissett, chair of the British Medical Association's medical students'
committee, said: "That wouldn't even pay my weekly food bill. If students are worrying about paying electricity bills or having enough food, it has serious implications for their work - and for their health."
Levels of predicted debt also vary according to subject.
Maths and computing students are most likely to expect a big debt. Almost half of those studying these subjects said they would graduate with a debt of more than £10,000. Despite the length of their course, medical students were more likely than students in any other subject to predict having no debt: 14 per cent claimed this would be the case.
Mr Bissett said this underlined the social bias in medicine. He said: "I've discussed this with ministers but they don't seem to care that medicine is filled predominately by students from the highest socioeconomic groups."
Students who live at home generally predict a lower level of debt when they leave university, supporting the argument that it is cheaper to live with parents. The survey showed that 40 per cent of those who live at home expect to graduate with a debt of £7,500 or less, compared with 15 per cent of those living in catered halls.
Quarter of students stay with mum
Higher education may once have been an excuse to escape from home, but parents now play a prominent role in the modern university experience, the Sodexho/ Times Higher survey indicates.
As financial pressures increase, staying at home has become the second most popular option. The survey found that a quarter of students live at home while studying, a higher proportion than estimated for previous years.
Predictably, this trend is having a big impact on students' choice of university:proximity to the family home is now the most common deciding factor.
But this is not the only change. The survey shows that students who live at home have a very different experience of university life. It suggests that a new subclass of live-at-home students is emerging, which exists largely on the periphery of the traditional academic world.
These students are more likely than their campus-based counterparts to rely on a part-time job during term time as their main source of income, according to the survey. In total, 58 per cent of undergraduates who live at home said they balanced paid work with academic commitments.
Almost a third of them spend between two and three hours a day travelling to and from university, more than students who live in more traditional university accommodation. When they have time for fun, it is largely outside campus. More than half the students who live at home said they did all or most of their socialising at non-university venues.
Mark Phippen, the head of the counselling service at Cambridge University, said this emotional and physical distance from the university was worrying.
He said: "It is important for students to feel they belong in a university or a social group.
"If you have less connection to your institution, it makes it easier to drop out. Who cares and who would notice?"
Sandra Hempel, whose daughter is living at home while studying English at Westminster University, told The Times Higher : "I assumed she'd be leaving home. When I was young, getting away from your parents was the whole point of going to university."
She said: "I didn't want to kick her out but I didn't want her to be like a commuter going off to work in an office either." Some months into the experience, Ms Hempel says her daughter is enjoying her course, but her social life revolves almost entirely around friends from her sixth-form college.
However, it is not only students living at home who rely on their parents.
The higher education bill has assumed that students are financially self-sufficient. In reality, money from parents is the second most common form of financial support for undergraduates, after student loans. More than half the respondents said they relied on cash from their parents. One in five said parents were their main source of income.
But the survey found that those who live at home were less likely to receive financial support from parents: only 40 per cent did.
Parents are also having an impact on where their children choose to study.
Students were more likely to have listened to advice from parents on this issue than to advice from teachers.
Frank Furedi, a sociologist at Kent University, described the increasing influence of parents in the university experience as "entirely negative".
He said: "This means staying an adolescent rather than becoming an independent adult."
Nineteen-year-old student Dameon Jennings said that if money were no object, his experience of university would be very different.
"I live at home purely because I couldn't afford to live outside," he explained. "If I'd had the choice, I would have taken the chance to move out."
Jennings, who is in his first year studying geography and sports science at Queen Mary, University of London, admitted that he misses some of the social aspects of university life by living at home. "My university and social lives are totally separate. For me, university is solely about getting an education."
Like many students, he juggles a part-time job with his academic work, leaving him no time for other activities. "I wanted to continue with rugby, but I don't have the time. I only have weekends and evenings free for study, so there's no time for much else. I'd rather not work, but I have to."
Even with his job, Jennings said he only just manages financially. "Money is a worry. I earn enough to keep my head above water - and that's it."