The cost of living is an access risk

A new London Higher report finds further evidence that the cost of living crisis is driving educational inequality, through its impact on access. Richard Boffey seeks political will from the new government to match the resolve of the sector

Richard Boffey is Head of AccessHE at London Higher

Readers of Wonkhe will need no reminding that the cost of living crisis is changing students’ perceptions of university.

In an article earlier this year, taking stock of progress two years on from the launch of their Student Futures Commission, Mary Curnock Cook and Richard Brabner pointed to evidence that students feel neither inclined nor able to engage with wider aspects of the higher education experience at present, on account of a “cost of learning crisis”.

As they put it: too many students now want to simply “get in to get out”.

Is the desire still there?

But what if students no longer want to “get in” in the first place? Even a few years ago that thought seemed almost inconceivable from the vantage point of London, where demand for higher education amongst the 18-year-old population has surged. Yet the access gap between free school meals-eligible Londoners and their more socio-economically advantaged peers has begun to tick up in recent years. The most recent UCAS figures suggest progression rates for those aged 18 in the capital may be reaching a peak. Is it purely a coincidence that these shifts in access, and in progression overall, are occurring at the same time as living costs for students have risen exponentially?

This is the question we address in a new report launched today by the widening participation division of London Higher, AccessHE, entitled Opportunity Cost. Does the cost of learning crisis start pre-HE, and if so, how does it shape patterns of access to higher education in London? Drawing on evidence from a series of focus groups with students in their final years of school and college, our research concludes that the cost of living is indeed affecting higher education decision-making, though it is not (yet) leading directly to young Londoners opting against university study.

The most obvious impact that financial pressures have at access stage, we find, is on student choice. Over 70 per cent of the students we spoke to expected to remain in London to study – compared to a rate of progression to London HE of around 46 per cent for young Londoners in recent years. Students are making clear that this is due to accommodation and living costs. In addition, 95 per cent of the students we spoke to planned to work part-time alongside their studies. Many explicitly cited cost concerns when explaining these decisions. Some referred to feeling as if they had little choice but to stay at home and to work alongside their studies and we found troubling evidence of disengagement with wider elements of the student experience.

At the same time, when we presented students in the focus groups with a list of common reasons not to attend university, they almost all saw debt as the most persuasive. No students selected the option “worried about being able to afford living costs whilst studying”.

Debt focus

Debt aversion among pre-entry students is not a new phenomenon, but it is interesting that it was the overriding concern for our focus groups. When talking about debt, several students also referenced worries about their job prospects or the state of the economy. The need to make ends meet was clearly on the mind of almost all the focus group participants. This suggests a complex interplay between perceptions of debt, the credentials associated with higher education and the cost of living in how young Londoners make decisions about their next steps after school or college.

When asked to estimate the costs of being a student, young Londoners’ projections (£1,474 per month on average) exceed the maximum of £1,112 per month that a London student will receive in maintenance support from 2024-25 onwards. There is an apparent divergence between students’ assumptions about the higher education experience awaiting them in London and the way in which that experience (and its costs) are presented by institutions. If this increases, it could weaken relationships of trust between institutions and prospective students, with attendant effects on access rates.

On a more positive note, three quarters of the students we engaged for this research intended to go to university, suggesting that, in spite of misgivings, they continue to see the value of higher education study. In addition, we found encouraging evidence of large-scale mobilisation across London’s higher education sector to support students through the cost of living from the moment they enter university.

What universities are doing

Data we collected through a survey of London higher education institutions indicates that many providers have developed new targeted initiatives such as automatic bursaries upon entry for vulnerable student groups experiencing financial precarity. They have also injected significant extra funding into existing hardship schemes. Several have reshaped their professional services and peer support infrastructure to make themselves as agile as possible in responding to students in financial hardship.

But more can be done to monitor access-stage impacts of the cost of living at a granular level, to understand which groups of students are most at risk. And the provision of information on the costs of study is too diffuse and inconsistent (something Wonkhe has also found). Very few of the institutions we surveyed provide cost information on their websites that is in line with the £1,112pm figure above, which is not of itself a problem, but the discrepancy, and its implications for students, should be presented openly and honestly. This matters, as our research found students to be ill-informed about the financial support they will receive, but also willing and eager to access advice on this from HEIs directly.

With an imminent change of government, there is now an opportunity to put the wind behind the sails of the sector in its work to minimise cost pressures for students. Our report shows that both providers and students are having to step into the breach to plug shortfalls in (eroded) maintenance funding: through increased hardship funds on the part of institutions and through part-time work on the part of students. These are stop-gap solutions that, in a cash-strapped sector, are not viable in the longer term.

The single most effective action the incoming Government could take on the cost of learning crisis after 04 July would be to reinstate maintenance grants for poorer students as well as raising overall maintenance loan entitlements. As recent Sutton Trust modelling has shown, this can be introduced at no additional cost to the Exchequer, so there is no excuse not to act.

Our report traces the beginnings of potentially much wider impacts of the cost of living on access to higher education. We cannot allow these to develop, or else, to borrow a phrase used in connection with part-time students in the 2010s, we risk a generation of young HE entrants becoming the “lost learners” of this decade. If that were to happen, it would ultimately be the government that would be left to count the costs of a decline in social mobility and of squandered growth and productivity gains.

London Higher will be running a free webinar presenting the findings from the Opportunity Cost report from 9-10am on Wednesday 3 July. Register to attend here.

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