A quarter of students say they are more likely to drop out – but probably won’t

A third of students from working class families are skipping meals to cut food costs, and over a quarter of students are working more to increase their income.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

They are amongst the findings from some new flash polling into the impact of the cost of living crisis on students commissioned by Sutton Trust, carried out by Savanta a couple of weeks ago.

Savanta surveyed 1,050 current undergraduate students, and the results are weighted to be representative by gender, course year and university group. We are left to assume (given the focus of the resultant recommendations) that the polling was carried out on students in England – although frustratingly even then we aren’t told if there are international students in the mix, or the proportions being supported by different domiciles (with students from Wales better off than others).

45 per cent of students are turning to their parents for financial support, six in ten said their financial situation was worse this academic year compared to last year, and as predicted a chunk are travelling to campus more to save on energy costs, and another chunk are coming to campus less to reduce their travel costs.

There’s a lot of this sort of material about at the moment – and it all reminds me a bit of the surveys carried out during Covid. There are, in the words of Sutton Trust founder and Peter Lampl, findings that are “scandalous”. But they’re dulled by being mixed in amongst other findings that are all a bit “well yes, we’re all having to do that”.

So when we learn that two thirds of students are spending less on food and essentials, my mind drifts to Radio 4’s business news when I swear I’ve heard supermarket bosses saying that that is merely a subset of wider consumer behaviour. When that finding is punctuated by more than 1 in 4 skipping meals to save on food costs, there’s a dangerous “never did me any ‘arm”, Young Ones style tone to the press coverage that sits in the same vein as being amused by students being told to ask silverfish in their halls to leave politely.

43 per cent of students using less fuel won’t cut through when that’s what we’re all doing, 47 per cent reducing socialising won’t be noticed when the inhabitants of the comments section think all students are all drunk all of the time, and 62 per cent spending less on non-essentials is hardly going to worry the “too many people are going to university” brigade.

The worst bit is probably Lampl’s argument that a quarter of students saying they are now less likely to finish their degree is “staggering”. Again, this won’t worry the “too many go” lot – but worse, I’ll bet this won’t happen. Just as those who predict that student debt or poor maintenance support will dull demand, those who think that students will go through will dropping out forget the extent to which our system is set up to trap, shame and then spit out struggling students at just the right time.

And given that, boy-cried-wolf warnings about non-continuation (which, if they came to pass, would be regulatorily blamed on universities anyway) being set up as the key way to judge the success or failure of our student finance arrangements are in many ways the last thing that students need when it’s their quality of life (and resultant outcomes) in the top end of the red zone that matter more.

The polling moves onto more helpful ground when it hints at the significant inequality gulf that is widening on (and between) campus(es). We don’t get the full cross-tabs here, but we do learn that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to report skipping meals to save on food costs, more likely to be moving home with family to save on rent or bills, and less likely to be able to call support from parents or wider family members.

That 40 per cent of students living in private rental accommodation said they had not received the £400 energy bills support scheme payment shouldn’t surprise us when government has being doing its best to argue that students don’t need the money, and recommending that government brings back maintenance grants would only help if the net pound in the pocket increased rather than just swapping some loan for grant.

What’s really required, I think, is something like a proper run at defining student precarity. It shouldn’t be difficult for universities, their SUs and the access charities to define a basic acceptable standard of student living for an advanced economy of ours, and to then identify how many students (and with which characteristics) are unable to experience it and are therefore having their outcomes impacted.

The danger is that fixing student finance becomes a luxury on the list that falls victim either to Tory “fair to students, fair to taxpayers too” or Labour “we can’t fix everything the Tories broke” framing. The sector mustn’t let that happen to the low-income students it is in the process of aggressively recruiting.

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