Pre-Uni / Applications

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.

Technology Can Help The Learning Process, But It’s Not The Whole Answer

Technology Learning Process

Times Higher Education reported on a “Future Proofing Universities” seminar. Sixth-form students at the event shared their appreciation of technology, but warned that it should not be used to replace established methods of teaching.

In my last post, I stressed how important it is to keep finding new ways to learn, so long as past approaches are not ignored.

I see three purposes in which technology can assist and enhance learning that students will be grateful for:

  1. Choice – In my last post, I stressed how important it is to keep finding new ways to learn. They don’t replace what has gone before, but they open up availability to those who cannot engage with or do not have the necessary resources to access current methods. Breakthroughs in technology continue to open new doors. The only reason to close old doors is when all use and interest has disappeared. Dead isn’t dead until it is truly gone. While it exists, there is a place for it, even if it has been demoted from a previous position of prominence.
  2. Accessibility – Preparation, organisation, ease of use. Technology should help facilitate in these areas. That’s why a university website with lots of video and opportunities to connect can win over potential students. Think about what comes before the learning and what allows the learning to blossom as opposed to what directly delivers the learning.
  3. Combination – Times Higher Education noted that a Year 13 student said universities should “combine not replace“. An additional strand to current learning methods is appreciated far more than a different approach to methods altogether. Either let the new strand form a relevant part of the process or introduce it as one choice among several (see Point 1).

Rise of the Tools?

Advances in technology enhance the scope for building new tools. Universities are, understandably, trying to make the most of the new technology and tools.

At the same time, it’s easy to forget that tools are not the answer. The answer lies with you:

“…tools are only tools. Rely on them & you let tools rule you. Learn to use them, don’t seek their help.” – [Source]

Pick a question… Technology forms only part of the answer. We can build the rest of the answer through our interactions with technology. Where that takes us, who knows?

And since we’re creating the road as we’re walking down it, that’s why it’s better to control the tools. We may not be able to determine the future exactly how we want it, but we should at least try through our own choices.

How to Make the Most of an Unconditional Offer

Unconditional offers of a university place are controversial. They seem like a good thing, but critics are concerned:

  • Pupils firmly accepting a place may not bother with their A-levels after that;
  • A change of heart can be hard to deal with once you’re committed to a place. You’ve locked in.

Get your head around those two issues and there’s not much to lose.

Unconditional Offers

In 2012, nearly 92% of predicted grades were accurate to within one grade. Half the predictions were not correct, but still not too far off. Given that, an unconditional offer based on predicted grades is still statistically worth a punt for universities.

When you’re lucky enough to get an unconditional offer, how do you make the best decision for you?

  1. Only make a firm acceptance if you truly want to go to that university – If you choose to lock in to a course and you end up getting the grades needed for a place you would have preferred, you may regret accepting an unconditional offer. Some universities may let you back out, but that would take time and you may end up missing out on what you wanted anyway. Only commit to an unconditional offer if your mind is completely made up.
  2. Don’t write off the A-levels – You may be tempted to relax if you know the place is guaranteed. That’s all the more reason to enjoy your A-levels and see where they take you. And a CV with very poor A-level grades will make you look less capable than you really are. Relax so you can do your best, not so you can stop bothering.
  3. Make sure you know what’s being asked of you – Unconditional offers often stipulate that the offer only stands if you make the university your firm choice. On rare occasions, you will be allowed to make your insurance choice an unconditional place. See what you can do and choose accordingly.
  4. Plan ahead with lots of time and ease – Once you accept an unconditional offer, your place is guaranteed. Set aside 15-30 minutes a week to find out more about the university, the area, the accommodation, the activities, the subject, the initial reading, and everything you can think of that you want to know. Read up, research and prepare now so you don’t have to do it later. When you hit campus, you’ll have more exciting things to enjoy.
  5. Remember the life-skills! – The more time you have to learn about laundry, cooking, cleaning and tidying, money-management, and organising your time, the better. They may be chores now, but that’s better than learning to do it all when you’ve got other stuff on your mind. As a bonus, your new uni mates will be amazed at your superhero abilities to do everything like a natural. Just so long as they don’t start asking you to do all their washing for them…

If you’re serious about preparing for your degree, make sure you check out the blog archives. And don’t forget to sign up to my TUBthump mailing list, starting soon!

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!]