Who doesn’t love a survey? Back in August HEPI and YouthSight contacted 1,078 current students to ask them what they thought about the HE policy issues of the day.
The headline findings are that opinion is fairly evenly split on Augar recommendations around fees, but students are very keen on grants and think that interest rates are important – and that they don’t much fancy living at home to save money.
The August date means that results don’t include the opinions of this year’s cohort of undergraduates, and the size of the sample means that the margin of error is ∓3.09 percent (at a 95% confidence interval). Weighting to quotas was used to reflect the composition of the UK undergraduate student body in terms of age, gender, and university type.
Equivocal on Augar
The proposition put to students was a choice between £9,250 and 30 years to repay and £7,500 and 40 years to repay – so it is a more sophisticated conceptualisation than the simple fee cut retail offer that Theresa May once hoped for. Interestingly nearly a fifth of students either didn’t know or had no preference on the matter.
Breaking it down by location, students responding from Wales, Scotland, Yorkshire and the east of England were most in favour of lower fees and 40 years to pay them back – but we’re dealing with small numbers, so it’s not likely to be statistically significant. You’ll recall that many other surveys have highlighted the greater weight placed on living costs as a primary concern, and sure enough this survey finds that 59 per cent felt that the cost of living while studying was most important to them.
Despite combining the repayment time and the headline figure, HEPI has chosen to separate out a question on interest rates and the repayment cap – finding that 79 per cent of students feel that the accumulation of interest is quite or very important to their understanding of the cost of university.
Students surveyed felt more strongly about interest than the overall debt burden relating to fee levels, perhaps suggesting that the conversation has been successfully shifted away from debt towards the “student contribution system” model proposed by Martin Lewis and others. Another way of reading it could be that interest levels make an immediate difference to the money in your pocket, in comparison with an unimaginable debt mountain. Maybe young people can more easily imagine not being able to afford their phone contract than not being able to afford the house they’ll never be able to afford anyway.
Take the money and run
Other surveys have asked respondents to rank aspects of the current and proposed systems to identify priorities, so it’s a bit of a surprise that HEPI doesn’t ask students for their opinions on what a fair system should look like. Instead, we get a detailed question on parental contributions.
Fifty two per cent of students have parental contributions to living costs – half of these receive more than £1,000 a year, which would include all of those for whom Mummy and Daddy pay their rent. When faced with the hypothetical option of living with parents to reduce loans, 38 per cent would take that option compared to 49 per cent that would not.
The final headline question asks for a rating of the importance of living away from home (between 1 and 5) which primarily demonstrates that it is quite or very important (58 per cent) for students to live away from home, though there is a hard core of 22 per cent for whom it is not important. Interestingly, Sutton Trust research shows that the majority of students stay relatively local, with 55.8 per cent in 2014/15 going to a university less than 55 miles away. The same research found that poorer students are three times more likely to live at home while they’re at university.
The Augar report was commissioned to address the perception of higher education as expensive and exclusionary, but HEPI’s survey shows that its proposals aren’t being gratefully gobbled up by students. If there’s not even clear water between the proposed system and the current system in terms of student popularity, we may have to rethink our list of Theresa May’s greatest policy-making achievements. Surely someone out there can come up with a decent retail offer on what students consistently care about – living and rent costs.