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Universities UK survey reveals fear of debt deterring would-be students

Universities UK Media Release, December 6, 2002:

Early findings from a year-long project by Universities UK examining the impact of debt on participation in higher education back up our call for maintenance support to be targeted to the most disadvantaged students if the Government’s 50% target is to be achieved through widening participation. 

Responses to the UK-wide survey of school leavers and FE students studying for HE entry qualifications provide hard evidence of previously anecdotal assumptions that the fear of getting into debt is deterring potential students – particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds - from entering higher education. 

Overall, respondents held positive attitudes towards higher education – 87% think going to university is a worthwhile experience. However, key early findings indicate that:

84% believe student debt deters entry into HE 
83% think one of the worst aspects of going to university is being in debt 
81% feel one of the worst aspects of students’ life is having little money 
Potential students are being deterred by the general idea of debt. They are also put off by the prospect of student debt as a result of taking out a student loan for living costs, and this view applies even if they know they will pay no tuition fees. This contrasts with the more pragmatic view taken by current students, many of whom accept that debt is normal. In a related Universities UK survey of current students, almost 75% agree that borrowing money for a university degree is a good investment. 

Other early findings from the survey of prospective students indicate that:

Debt aversion deters the participation in HE of lower-income groups 
Debt aversion deters the potential take-up of student loans. 
Concern over student debt is greatest among the poorest and lone parents. 
There is a general lack of information on student financial support, and under-represented groups find it most difficult to access. 
A white school leaver or FE student is 8 ½ times more likely not to enter HE than a school leaver or FE student from a black or ethnic minority group. 
A pupil at an independent school is 20 times more likely than an FE student to enter HE. 
Low-income HE entrants, unlike high-income entrants, restrict their choice of university and course. 
High-income entrants, unlike low-income entrants, plan to rely on commercial credit and their families to finance them rather than term-time employment.

Professor Diana Green, Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University and Chair of the Student Debt Project 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. 

"It’s clear that current student funding policies, which are based on the accumulation of debt, deter participation among those who are the focus of widening participation policies. These policies are being undermined by current student financial support arrangements."

Diana Warwick, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said: "At a time when the Government is finalising its ten-year strategy paper for higher education, these early findings are a strong signal that changes in student funding policies are required to achieve a socially diverse student population.

"The findings also support the Universities UK view that more information on student financial support is required, and that this needs to be targeted at under-represented groups. This information also needs to be accessible, transparent and available at an early stage. If the Government is serious about its aim of having ‘potential, not parentage’, and ‘merit, not money’ as the determining factor for entry to HE, it must accept that current funding policies will not achieve this. We look forward to its recognition of this in the 10-year strategy paper." 


The Student Debt Project was commissioned by Universities UK in December 2000. The project consists of two studies. One looked at the impact of debt on participation in higher education by surveying just under 2,000 UK school leavers and FE college students in their final year of study and working towards an HE entry qualification. The other examines the impact of term-time working on academic achievement among current students, and looks at their perceptions of debt. Questionnaires were distributed to final year full-time home undergraduates in seven universities across the UK, resulting in 1500 valid completed responses. The work was carried out by a team involving Professor Claire Callender from South Bank University and Professor John Brennan from the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information at the Open University. The full research reports will be published at the end of January 2003.
The Student Debt Project steering group was chaired by Professor Diana Green, Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, and included representatives from the NUS and HEFCE. HEFCE also contributed to the funding of the project.
For summaries of the key findings, please click here for the current summary and here for the prospective summary.

December 2002

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Last updated: 13 December 2002 10:55
Created by: Rachel Tunstall

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