Debt is deterring would-be students

Josephine Gardiner

Graduates are in demand again and students with vocational qualifications are getting into university, but the grants on offer may be a deterrent to prospective undergraduates.

The prospect of spending three years subsisting on instant noodles and writing essays between waitressing shifts, followed by years spent under the shadow of a compulsory debt, is dampening sixth-formers' enthusiasm for university and could be turning mature students off the idea of higher education altogether.

Evidence is beginning to show that while hopeful university entrants accept that they will have to work part-time to make ends meet while at university, the idea of debt is frightening, especially for young people whose parents cannot provide a financial cushion when things go wrong.

Financial constraints are also breaking the uniquely English tradition whereby students leave home to attend universities hundreds of miles away. Pupils are now more likely to opt for their local institution and stay at home, which is the norm in America and France.

Last week a report by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals revealed a 30 per cent increase for 199293 in the numbers of undergraduates dropping out of university for non-academic reasons. "Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that financial difficulties are responsible for much of this increase," said the report, which prompted calls from the Labour party and others for an overhaul of the student loan scheme, and suggestions that the dramatic expansion of the higher education sector has been achieved at too high a price.

Dr Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said that UCAS officers were intrigued last summer by the speed with which the clearing operation went through once A-level results were published, and learned that universities were ringing round schools to advertise the existence of places.

A survey by UCAS of a number of schools found that many pupils were choosing not to chase university places because they were daunted by the financial implications, or were deferring places until they had saved some money.

Grants and finance are a subject due to be tackled by the Government's higher education review later this year, but whilst acknowledging the need for change, both major political parties have fought shy of coming out in favour of a scheme which could alarm middle-class parents.

Ian Gordon, a mature undergraduate in his final year of a social policy degree at Plymouth University, is following this up with an attitude survey of 1,000 sixth-formers to find how far fear of debt is affecting applications and take-up of places. "I know of so many young people who haven't gone on to higher education because they can't afford it and I thought that a proper survey, if it proves what I suspect, might give weight to the argument that the Government's loan policy should be changed," he said.

Fear of penury for pupils at City and Islington college in London, the third largest FE college in England, is "increasingly an issue", says Ruth Bromley, director of the college's sixth-form centre.

"It is putting off those for whom money is already a problem and is affecting the ones we have spent the past 10 years persuading that higher education is a right - pupils whose parents did not go to university, for instance, or whose first language is not English," she said.

The other effect, she says, is that far more pupils are applying for places in London. "This is a definite change; the idea that you travelled away to university was a legacy of the public school system, but it was a broadening experience. Many of our students cannot afford to visit distant universities, so they can't get a taste of what they're like."

Over at the college's city campus, lecturer Mary Rimington runs higher education Access courses for older students. She believes that it is these people who are particularly hesitant about committing themselves to three years of financial hardship because most of them have already experienced poverty.

David Bland, the college's student adviser, holds regular seminars for the students where he explains how the grant-plus-loan system works and advises them to fix themselves up with a part-time job at their chosen university as soon as their place is confirmed. "If they wait till they go up in October they will face competition from all the other students and find it difficult to find a job that fits in with the course."

At Longcroft school, a large 11-18 comprehensive near Hull, the head, Lesley Hughes said: "There were a couple of pupils both this year and last who could have gone to university but decided not to because of fear about debt. This is certainly something that concerns me - and the parents."

But the acting chief executive of the student loans company, Sir Eric Ash, has responded to the CVCP survey by suggesting that students'anxiety about debt is unjustified: "The repayment terms are extraordinarily benign," he said. "My fear is that in spite of all our efforts, this message is not adequately appreciated by all students - perhaps not even by all vice-chancellors. "

Labour's higher education spokesman, Bryan Davies, said: "What is feeding back into schools is the impression that it's a tough life keeping body and soul together at university. This has a deterrent effect on young people considering higher education, particularly if there's already a job in the offing."

Labour's HE policy statement is due in November and will include, said Mr Davies, a guarantee of additional resources for student maintenance and a new loan scheme whereby students would "repay more gently and over a longer time period".

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