The cost of learning crisis is creating new threats to students’ futures

Two years on from the report of the Student Futures Commission, rising costs are undermining efforts to build back post-Covid, warn Mary Curnock Cook and Richard Brabner

Mary Curnock Cook is chair of Pearson Education, and a former chief executive of UCAS. She chaired the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission

Richard Brabner is executive chair of the UPP Foundation

In 2021 the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission had an ambitious aim: to understand how the pandemic was impacting new and current students, and to identify how the higher education sector could work with students to get them back on track.

Nearly three years on, our new report shows that much of the acute impact of the pandemic has been mitigated by a sector intent on supporting successful student futures. Our polling evidence in particular shows that some of the university experience has bounced back, and students are generally satisfied with their time in higher education. It is clear that universities have worked hard to help build back provision and campuses post-pandemic.

For example, 79 per cent of the students surveyed for the report agreed that their university had given them all the support they needed to prepare for the start of term. 74 per cent were working at or above the academic level they expected to be. And 74 per cent agreed that they feel happy at university.

Cost of learning crisis

But new threats to students’ futures have emerged: the lost learning crisis has been replaced by a cost of learning crisis. As our report lays bare, more students are having to work because their maintenance loans simply don’t cover living costs. Their parents are also less able to support them given their own financial constraints and higher mortgage payments.

Being short of money and having to work long hours leads to less engagement with the university life which is such an essential part of the experience and benefit of higher education. Worse still, it means too many students having to prioritise work shifts over attending lectures and seminars or engaging with careers education and advice.

Our research points to an increasingly transactional relationship between students and their university where getting the degree certificate becomes the only aim. Too many students want to simply “get in to get out”. Many of the students we spoke to in focus groups felt a complete lack of agency over their experience and felt they had little choice in how to build and develop their one route through their institution.

A concerning number of students are exhausted and lonely, with their mental health worsening. 44 per cent of the students we surveyed reported feeling lonely at university. The same proportion reported being less engaged in extra-curricular activities than they had expected to be, and a quarter had never engaged with any extra-curricular activity at all. 27 per cent said they would not be comfortable contacting their university for support if they were struggling with their mental health.

The UCAS data for applications before the January 2024 deadline shows demand is softening among both school leavers and mature students as news reports about the new realities of student life abound. Applicants from more challenged socio-economic backgrounds are even more likely to think twice about applying and first-in-family applicants will have little peer pressure if they decide not to.

Our research shows that international students are not immune to the financial pressures either and they feel all the more resentful given the higher fees they are paying.

The limits of more for less

There is always more that universities could do and they are repeatedly expected to step up to political and regulatory priorities, as well as modern student expectations and mental health challenges. But all this costs money and many universities are at the end of their financial tether.

Ten years of inflation, especially recently, have eaten away at the value of the undergraduate tuition fee and new constraints on visas for international graduates have started to impact demand from non-UK markets too. Universities also face increasing costs for energy, salaries and pensions and their headroom to keep doing more for less is diminishing.

There’s plenty to be pleased about in this research. But the deterioration of government support for universities and students – political and financial – is putting at risk a generation of talent that is sorely needed to uphold a healthy society, a growing economy and the challenges of the technological age.

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