Reality bites for students in the new 2023/24 academic year

Most students are embedded in their new term and hope they can do well. Those entering university first year will be affected by the new student loan and funding regime.  It will be very expensive for many of them in the long run. But the living cost reality that faces them now must be sinking in as their financial worries rise.  After some marginal progress, it seems we are slipping backwards in fair access.

Last week saw the Labour Party conference in Liverpool that offered a glimmer of hope for change.  Whilst students and universities did not appear much on the main conference menu, there was a different story in the fringe events.  Over the three days, there were well over 700 fringe events. Of these around 78 tackled education at all levels from early years to universities and colleges. Where universities were the focus, the impact of disadvantage on students and the need for more hours in employment loomed large. There is no doubt this will become the focus of more attention as the year progresses (see TEFS 13th October 2023 ‘Labour Party Conference 2023: when dreams become reality’).

Little changes.

However, the new student loan arrangements for this year are likely to have deterred many students, particularly those from less advantaged backgrounds. The new arrangement will mean that lower-earning graduates will have to pay back much more of their loans (London Economics May 2023).  Recent research earlier this month by the Sutton Trust and Data HE (25-Years-of-University-Access) paints a grim scene of  25 years of university access. There’s no dodging the simple fact that, although more students have gone to university, the wide gap between the most and least advantaged has remained in place. Now, after decades of incremental rises, entry rates reduced in 2022, and are projected to do so again in 2023, posing a new challenge for access. This is despite the population of eighteen-year-olds still rising. The pandemic affected school students at all levels, and it will take over ten years for this effect to wash through the system. With students from lower-income families being more affected, we can only expect to see that this will get worse after “10 years of progress in closing the attainment gap having been lost for the first cohort of students to sit GCSE exams post-pandemic”.

Students cope by taking on jobs and more hours.

This outcome is inevitable as more students find they are struggling to pay for their rising accommodation and living costs. Many families are ‘maxed out’ and beyond their planned limits.  This realisation led to a dramatic rise in media interest in the impact of the economic crisis on university students in the run-up to this academic year. They had uncovered an even more alarming trend.  The main driver has been the realisation this year that most students are in part-time jobs during term time. Yet this has been known for many years for a significant minority. The wake-up call has been realising this now affects the majority. All recent surveys point in the same direction. The latest 2023 Advance HE/Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI)  2023 student experience survey (55%), Sutton Trust/BBC (67%) and the National Union of Students (69%).

Stress and anxiety rise.

This impact on students is certainly not a trivial one. With means-tested maintenance loans barely meeting costs, students are often left with little choice as they face ‘unprecedented rent rises’. The pressure is relentless and the  Guardian recently highlighted a study in the Lancet that linked life as a student with adverse mental health due to,

 “increased financial pressures and worries about achieving high results in the wider economic and social context”. 

This cannot be ignored and its good that finally the main cause of student stress was finance.

More to come.

There is little doubt the coming year will see a further rise in term-time paid employment. TEFS has warned about this for many years and as recently as earlier this summer (see Footnote). But the headline figures of an average of around 12 hours per week hide a much wider distribution of hours that should be of greater concern.  The Sutton Trust/BBC report in March observed that nearly half (49%) of undergraduate students “missed classes this academic year to do paid work”.  Two-thirds of students reported they worked, with 20% working 16-30 hours per week and 6% over 30 hours per week.  This was largely consistent with the 2023 Student Experience Survey data where there was a similar distribution of hours worked. Analysis of the cumulative student experience survey data in Figure 1 shows that the distribution of number of hours worked by those students in work is slowly drifting upwards. With 55% in work in the term-time last year, the numbers affected are rising fast.

Loss of study time impacts success.

My experience over many years of teaching at a university has been that of a rising number of students skipping classes and missing deadlines due to jobs, commuting and caring responsibilities. The impact on their degree attainment was obvious, and largely swept under the carpet. Yet the impact on studies has been known for many years and a detailed study in 2008 concluded that “working for 15 hours per week were a third less likely to get a good degree than an identical non-working student”.

Turning a blind eye.

Despite this being obvious to lecturers, as recently as 2020 the Guardian reported that nearly all universities had no real handle on how many hours their students worked. TEFS reported this in June 2020 as ‘University student part-time working is a dangerous blind spot’.  It certainly was not a mitigating factor in assessments over the years.  Yet it is slowly becoming normalised with the university eye still blind to the impact.

However, now universities are reacting in a strangely perverse way, with HEPI reporting recently that 48% of universities openly support their students in getting part-time jobs.  Add this to a move to condensing studies into three-day weeks to accommodate their jobs and there is a major shift in the education provision on the horizon.  There should be no doubt that the breadth of the curriculum will be impacted, and the educational experience will not match that enjoyed by most of our political leaders in the past. They must now finally acknowledge that there is a two-tier system operating that favours students with family support over others. Time to study has emerged as the new currency of success.

The authorMike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

Acknowledgement: TEFS thanks Jonathan Neves and colleagues at Advance HE and HEPI for openly releasing the combined survey data.
TEFS has particularly highlighted the situation with excessive hours in part-time
jobs. More recently in July 2022 with, ‘Student hardship: it’s going to be a cold winter’ and earlier this summer with, ‘More students in jobs as fewer travel first class on the university experience train’.
The evidence of a ‘two-tier’ system, dividing those with time and resources from those with little of both, is overwhelming and has been in play for some time. See earlier posts.

·   Students working in term-time: Overall pattern across the UK July19, 2019
·    Students working in term-time: Challenging the ‘disadvantage’ shibboleth August 09, 2019
·    Students working in term-time: Commuter students and their working patterns August 23, 2019
·   The cost of equalising the HE experience November 29, 2019
·    The vast majority – one million – of students have no employment when in full-time studies. July 27, 2018

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