Policy

What Are Student Perceptions Of Debt?

This week has been National Student Money Week. So there’s no better time (if there is ever a GOOD time!) to talk about student debt. *shudder*

what are student perceptions of debt

Living costs are an issue just as much fees, if not more so. Hidden course costs, social outlay, not to mention basic needs like food, drink and accommodation; it all adds up. And the more it adds up, the more likely students are to get into debt.

Now a new report suggests that graduates may end up repaying tens of thousands more on their student loans. It’s no wonder some people are put off attending university.

While student loans constitute a special type of debt that only begins to be repaid once a graduate is earning more than £21,000, it is still seen by many as a scary debt. A debt that has little chance of going away until 30 years have passed.

Debt is a common concern

The UNITE Student Experience Survey 2014 discovered that many applicants feel in the dark regarding their finances. And while current students have a much better view of their finances, only 56% state that their financial streams are sufficient. That still leaves nearly a quarter (24%) of undergraduate respondents saying their finances are not sufficient, and another fifth uncertain of their position.

Couple this with the survey’s finding that finances are the most frequent concern for students whilst at university and it is clear that a sizeable proportion of students are not comfortable with their debt experiences.

A surprising 28% of students polled claimed not to have any debt whatsoever. Does the high proportion suggest that not all debt is necessarily considered a debt? For instance, undergraduates are far more likely to use bank overdrafts than applicants assume will be the case (28% of students, compared with 11% of applicants). Given the percentage of respondents claiming not to have been in any debt whatsoever, it could be that they do not even see an overdraft as a debt in the first place.

bank notes

Fear doesn’t always lead to confrontation

So where does that leave perceptions of debt? Although tuition fees have been the focus of much national media coverage, it is unlikely that students see fees as an area where savings can be made.

Because while tuition fees are variable, up to £9,000, institutions tend to charge close to the maximum anyway. Students do not see enough difference between universities to influence their choices. One study also suggests that bursaries and other financial incentives are rarely investigated until much later in the process, if at all.

This suggests that many applicants have background fears about debt, but do not confront them. This may be due to a lack of time, or a failure to see the importance of such a worry. One way or another, financial concerns make an impact on behaviour that is sometimes indirect and unconscious.

Money and debt are, therefore, motivators that can work in negative ways. But attitudes and perceptions are difficult to work out without detailed, lengthy, costly research.

HEFCE analyses POLAR3 codes, which refer to postcode areas where people are more or less likely to participate in higher education. We can use these to assess educational disadvantages regarding HE, although HEFCE state that POLAR3 codes are not a reliable indication of disadvantaged areas in general. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see no notable differences from respondents to the UNITE survey regarding attitudes toward debt across the POLAR3 codes.

The survey did find some differences. Those in category 1 of POLAR3 (least likely to be participating in HE) were found more likely to be thinking about their job or career, as well as thinking about their family. Those in category 5 (most likely to participate) were more likely to live in university halls than categories 1 and 2.

Despite these findings, group 1 respondents were less likely to state that their intention to live at home was driven by it being more affordable. This is backed up by research that found that fear of debt was not a reliable predictor of staying at home for university to save money. What we cannot tell behind this is whether indirect and unconscious attitudes played a hidden part in the process.

The same research, by Callender and Jackson, also stated that low-income students were more likely to see the cost of their university experience as a debt and not an investment.

This difference between investment and debt can make an impact on student decisions. A 2010 Policy Exchange report stated that it is difficult for students to make rational decisions surrounding university when debts are involved. The report said, “At present such data is worryingly thin, and would-be students are left largely in the dark about many questions that they consider to be important”.

money close up

Information alone is not enough

Fast forward to 2015 again and policy has developed that centres on providing more information to prospective students through as they form the ‘heart of the system’. From Key Information Sets to improved support services once on campus, one thing students don’t seem to be lacking in is information.

But does all this upfront information make much difference to perceptions of debt? Do applicants feel reassured by promises of good value, good resources, and good job prospects?

Callender argues that information alone is not enough to improve the student experience. She also says that the game has changed, calling the 2012/13 reforms ‘more extreme’. For those in less advantaged positions, Callender suggests that the new system is more likely to reduce their chances of entering higher education and that HE could become more elitist rather than inclusive.

It’s clear that certain perceptions of debt can lead to decisions that are not always in the best interests of the individual. What is less clear is understanding who is most at risk and how they reached that perception of debt. We may find that the same concerns result in vastly different actions. Some people will not go to university at all, while others attend but tread a careful path. Others may ignore their situation altogether until it is too late.

We should stop and think carefully about this uncertainty. It is easy to shrug off when application figures to university are still healthy despite £9k fees. But that is not the whole picture. A worrying number of students will experience university in such a way that is potentially detrimental to their participation in HE and to their future beyond university.

Debt isn’t going away, so perceptions make a difference. For those 44% of students from the Unite Student Survey with uncertain or insufficient finances, it is vital to ensure that they not only receive advice and guidance where necessary, but also gain support to improve their personal perceptions of debt.

Nobody enjoys being in debt so it is crucial that students understand different types of debt and shape their perceptions of them accordingly. Only then can students respond in a way that gives them the best chance of dealing with their situation positively.

This article arose from a data hackathon, run by Unite Students and NUS Services in partnership with Wonkhe. The dataset is drawn from the Students Matter survey conducted Dec 2013-Jan 2014 by NUS Services and published in May 2014 by Unite Students.

Do Standardised Online Classes Have A Place In Higher Education?

Laptop and Books - Standardised Classes

I saw a CCAP piece on Forbes which looked at standardising classes and replacing the need for some teaching staff. The piece asked, “…what is the point of having instructors in the classroom if a computer can teach everything?

Does this computer-based format constitute higher education? By standardising classes, you deliberately restrict what can be gained through the class. Not the best start when we’re talking higher education.

However, there is a place for this type of learning. Some examples:

  • Helps promote some aspects of lifelong learning;
  • Useful for already standardised practices and areas that do not require multiple avenues of thought until further down the line;
  • Allows access to those who do not have access any other way than this.

The CCAP article goes on to say that not all classes can be standardised like this and some will struggle in any online format. But for those classes that can be amended to suit a standardised, online format, the decreased teaching costs could help students through smaller tuition costs and/or better services.

Standardisation could also pave the way for recognised qualifications. A new HEA report on MOOCs in the UK states that online learning could play a bigger part if courses were officially recognised:

“Accreditation of learning that attracts UCAS points is necessary if MOOCs are to become part of the landscape of higher education and provide a route to the full range of higher level learning. HE providers should work at putting this into place.” – p.9

The report, by Julie Wintrup, Kelly Wakefield and Hugh Davis, warns that the current lack of academic recognition does not allow MOOCs to play a part in widening access to higher education. Once you bridge that gap, there may be greater acceptance of this pathway to learning in the beginning stages of higher education. It could also form the basis to introduce qualifications that support higher education but do not form an entire degree programme. Standardised classes may play a part here.

Finding new routes to learning

This is clearly not an ‘all or nothing’ approach. Online learning can work in ways that face-to-face might not. MOOCs can take on both a standardised and an exploratory framework. In order to support diversity and widening participation, there should be multiple ways to keep the learning arena open.

For now, there is no easy way to support this to such a large extent. A report to the European Commission on new modes of learning and teaching in HE laments the many difficulties surrounding new methods of provision, but stresses how important it is to pursue their potential, “…given the opportunities that they offer for lifelong learning, continuing professional development and internationalisation“.

Their plea is for greater support and less derision. Solutions are not yet clear cut, but a dismissive attitude at this stage may stop us from finding out whether or not anything is feasible.

The UUK Student Funding Panel is currently seeking evidence on how they can “ensure the higher education system is sufficiently diverse and flexible to deliver an outstanding learning experience to all students“. The recent decline in part-time students, coupled with the lack of incentive to offer alternative routes to HE, means that some people will be locked out, despite a desire to continue learning. Perhaps there is a place for standardised classes and accredited online learning here.

UUK certainly sees the possibility, even before the funding panel evidence is through. The 2014 Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education, states that the decline in part-time and distance learning enrolments does not paint the full picture:

“Online courses such as MOOCs also represent more informal and accessible forms of distance learning being offered by universities that are not recorded in distance learning statistics.”

So there’s still a long way to come, but potential is there. While the limited reporting on MOOC participation currently suggests that these courses are most likely to be taken by those who are already graduates, the future for widening participation may still have a place.

MOOCs and “exaggerated promises”

Don’t expect things to move too quickly though. Very little in this sense manages to come from overnight change.

The hype and rhetoric around MOOCs that reached national and international press resulted in anti-climax and many an EdTech ‘told-you-so’, but a calmer long-term approach should be more useful for all involved.

On the other hand, shouldn’t we also take into account the fantastic opportunities available online that are deliberately not standardised? Courses that triumph community and collaboration over qualifications and careers? Lee Skallerup Bessette wasn’t keen on her MOOC experiences, yet she has found much to like (and learn) elsewhere online:

“From the Maker Movement to Learning to Code from Scratch, there are communities out there to support learners, rather than just transmit information to them. We can learn from each other, support one another, and share our trials and triumphs. Professional development doesn’t have to be expensive, didactic, and a chore anymore. It can be an opportunity to help your faculty, school, and students open up to the world.” [Source – Educating Modern Learners, “14 posts from 2014″]

There is room for all sorts of initiatives. And if both universities and students can benefit from online learning of whatever appearance, this is cause for celebration.

But, as Martin Weller states in his new book, “The Battle For Open“, most discussion around MOOCs has been within a framework of replacing university altogether. He explains that this “exaggerated promise” has led to resistance, rather than an interest in “the more nuanced reality they may offer”.

Online learning is just one part of higher education. It is growing and it is changing as it grows. If a computer can teach everything in one area, let it do the teaching. If it requires a vast and diverse community, host it online and let people explore.

Just make sure that focus is not lost on the areas that can or should thrive through face-to-face interaction. The idea isn’t simply to replace, since learning constitutes everything around us. Online isn’t the only way, just as face-to-face isn’t either. There are countless possibilities.

We are still working out what can be done and how to facilitate learning for the benefit of students and tutors. I can’t imagine innovations and ideas ever coming to a halt. Martin Weller warns that we must not abdicate responsibility and ownership. It is crucial that we continue to explore new learning opportunities rather than concede them to others.

That, for me, is the most important point. We’re learning how to learn to learn. It may get messy and meta. And that’s marvellous.

opportunities

How Will Students Live and Learn in the Future? #HEFutures

Last week, I attended the launch of “Living and Learning in 2034” [PDF] about the future of higher education. I was part of the project team, so I didn’t want to miss the event!

The report looks at how the student experience could change in coming years and considers the future wants and needs of students under a number of scenarios.

Visions of the future. Not quite like this... (photo by seemann)

Visions of the future. Not quite like this… (photo by seemann)

There was loads of great discussion on the night, including a great question and answer session that you can see highlights from below.

Student Living

Mark Allan, Chief Executive of UNITE Group, kicked off the evening by explaining why student living is at the heart of HE. Why not simply the student, as the government’s 2011 White Paper suggested? Because the experience is broad and all-embracing. Allan said that it’s important to try to understand and interpret future student interests, especially since students are not all the same.

While there is a current trend of seeing university as a necessity for employability and future success, that doesn’t mean everyone looks to higher education in this way. It also doesn’t mean the future will play out this way. However, this document does recognise current trends coming into play and uses them as a base (ten key trends are described in the report).

Study Patterns and Ethos

Paul Harris, Group Strategy and Commercial Director at UNITE, then talked about the prospect of new stakeholders making a huge impact on the higher education sector in coming years. It is not clear where that will take matters, he explained, because there are already fundamental uncertainties that will make an impact on HE futures.

He also questioned whether shorter and more intensive study patterns were on the horizon. Three year degrees may be the norm now, but shifting needs may speed development of 18-month and two-year courses.

Harris concluded with a strong point on ethos. While general attitudes within society are not always the most obvious consideration, they are a key issue that can make a huge impact, both nationally and globally.

We respond to each other and are aware of opinions that are forming. As such, a local economy could be booming or busting, but the final say on how that is perceived could be down to how the public react and respond to the circumstances. Even a bleak economic outlook can be played positively, so it would be wrong to ignore the ethos in society.

Ruled by Technology

One highlight from the event was one student’s dystopian vision of what could occur if technology pushed our minds (and our time) further away from our control. Does technology drive people or do people drive technology?

An abridged version of the student story can be found in the report. I told Cameron, the author, that I found his portrayal vivid and amusing. However, I continued, I’d stop laughing if his story became a reality.

Continue the Discussion

The end of the evening saw some brilliant questions from the floor. It helped the idea that the document is very much a living discussion. Among the questions and subsequent answers on the night were:

Might students in the future want to study in more than one place in the world?
Climate change may force people to stay closer to home in the future, forcing the hand on this one. But if travel continues to happen as it is, some students may prefer to get a range of experiences nationally and even around the globe. What we see as modular today may expand to single modules in several different institutions, but all part of a particular qualification.

Which scenario is currently most likely to play out?
We have no reliable crystal ball. Even as the report was being researched, opinions on the most likely scenario seemed to be changing. In addition, there’s nothing to say that different parts of the country could see different scenarios based on local circumstances.

These scenarios each impact attitudes to education and lifelong learning. Will universities plot out possibilities based on each scenario?
The hope is that the conversation will continue and expand. We must be prepared for many outcomes and it would not be sensible to assume a single course, no matter how obvious it appears to someone. Ignoring possible risks is a risk in itself.

Students discussing accommodation on TheStudentRoom focus very much on value for money and location. How will this change in the future, if at all?
If environment can bring more success, value will be drawn out and noticed. Success means different things and that can be drawn out from a person’s environment. That hasn’t been cracked yet in this country and there are many opportunities.
With £9k fees, students are now looking much more closely at what type of experience they want. Is it employer based, international, lifelong and learning focused, or something deliberately unique to a person? Universities in the United States are focusing on the student experience a great deal at the moment and some pointers could be taken from there. However, with spiralling costs, it is important to also be careful.

Your Thoughts?

A blog has been set up for the report, which will feature more ideas and content, over at hefutures.wordpress.com. There is already a graphic showcasing four of the possible students of the future.

What is your vision of the future? Leave a comment here or tweet your thoughts with the hashtag #HEFutures.

UCAS Statistics and Looking Cautiously Ahead

UCAS has released statistics for the number of university applicants so far this year. The numbers for the November comparison point show a 4% drop in UK applicants compared to last year. Applicant totals so far are closer to 2010 figures.

However, the 2010 figures for UK applicants increased by 340% between the November comparison point and the January deadline. Compare that with a 300% increase in 2011, 250% in 2012, and 300% in 2013. As we are regularly reminded, information provided in the interim should not suggest any specific course of events. Early figures of this type rarely provide an idea of the final outcome.

We can't see the future, but that doesn't mean we should wait until it's happened.

We can’t see the future, but that doesn’t mean we should wait until it’s happened.

Chief executive of Universities UK, Nicola Dandridge, explained that direct comparisons cannot be made as this year’s figures have been taken on a different date. Dandridge also recognised that applicants are increasingly using the whole time available up to the January deadline, rather than applying straight away.

So while nothing is set in stone, these statistics offer us a guide to possible scenarios that could play out.

Is this year’s drop partially down to potential applicants (and their parents, carers, etc.) giving greater consideration to their decisions from the outset? And will their caution result in a big surge toward the end or a clear dip?

Much of this depends not so much on tuition fee worries, but on viable and comparable alternatives to higher education. I don’t feel we have yet reached a point where large numbers of school leavers are realistically considering many different routes. New ideas are brewing, but university is still a big driver and still seen by many as ‘what you do’. How long will this attitude last?

The 2011 White Paper said it was time for students to vote with their feet:

We want a diverse, competitive system that can offer different types of higher education so that students can choose freely between a wide range of providers.” – p.47, Students at the Heart of the System, 2011.

It assumes that people will choose the best university for them. But what if people instead choose no university at all?

The thing about feet is that there’s more than one way to vote with them.

[Update: Nick Entwistle pointed out that the 4% drop is roughly in line with population figures for 18 year olds. As numbers in that demographic are currently on a decline, that makes sense. It’s another important factor to consider and I forgot to mention that, so thanks Nick!]