Student life 2004: £12,000 in debt, fewer cheap rooms and a pint costs 60% more

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The Independent Online

Spare a thought for university students. Not only has their average debt doubled since Labour came to power, but facilities are becoming increasingly stretched as more school leavers go to university.

Spare a thought for university students. Not only has their average debt doubled since Labour came to power, but facilities are becoming increasingly stretched as more school leavers go to university.

And in a final blow, the price of a pint of beer has leapt by 60 per cent since 1997, according to a new guide to campus life.

The rising cost of getting a degree was revealed yesterday as a quarter of a million A-level pupils waited for their exam results. Students graduate owing an average of £11,830, up from £5,792 when Labour came to power, according to the survey of more than 1,200 students.

The varying cost of living, and particularly rent, meant that some students were relatively well off while others struggled with large debts. One in 10 students graduated owing at least £15,000. Debt levels are likely to increase as top-up fees bring tuition costs to £3,000 a year from 2006.

The Push Guide to Money 2005-6 found that debts differed across the country from just £128 a year at Birkbeck, a University of London college for part-time students, to £7,471 at Bath University. Average rents were £35 in Bradford and Hull but £118 at the School of Pharmacy in London.

Fewer undergraduates have access to college accommodation than in 1997 and counselling is also less widely available. The price of a pint in the student union bar has jumped 58 per cent since 1997 to an average of £1.89. The most expensive pint was at the University of London's Heythrop College; the cheapest was £1 in Leeds and Liverpool.

The guide revealed the best universities to meet the opposite sex. At the Royal Veterinary College, London, there are nearly four men to every woman, but four women to every man at Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh.

The percentage of graduates who failed to find work within six months of leaving ranged from none at the School of Pharmacy and St George's Medical School, London to 19 per cent at the University of East London.

Johnny Rich, the editor of the guide, said: "If you want to go to university these days, you're going to be meeting a lot of the cost yourself through student loans and usually by having a part-time job." But there was good news on drop-out and failure rates, which fell from almost one in five in 1997 to just over 15 per cent this year.

Mr Rich said that the fall might reflect the fact that students with massive debts could no longer afford to leave their course if they realised they had made a mistake. "It's getting ever more expensive to attend university and when you find yourself with a huge debt you simply can't afford to drop out and have nothing to show for it. Instead, you endure a situation that could, in many cases, have been avoided if only you'd found a university suited to you in the first place."

Hannah Essex, the National Union of Students' vice- president for education, said the survey showed that student finances were getting ever tougher. She added: "The amount of debt incurred by the average student forced to pay fees while accommodation and living costs is rising year on year comes as no surprise," she said. "NUS research shows that there is still a shortfall of around £4,523 between a student's income and expenditure."

CLASS OF 1997: Owen Clark, 25

Owen went to Leeds University in September 1997 to study minerals engineering, and was among the last students to benefit from not paying tuition fees. He had a bar job paying up to £120 a week and his parents paid his accommodation and book costs for the first two years. He graduated with a £1,300 student loan and £1,000 overdraft, but is relieved not to face the financial burdens current students do.

"I'm pleased I went when I did," he says. "Money was definitely less of a problem. A lot of us had loans but owing money didn't bother us. Everybody worried about passing, not about debt.

"Students' expectations are definitely higher now, they want more for their money. When I was a student we expected nothing, and that's pretty much what we got - our halls were pretty nasty but they only cost us £30 a week. Now I think it is £60. Leeds student nights used to be 20p a shot - I can't believe the hike in beer prices.

"If I'd gone to university now, I'd have to get a lot more money off my parents or have a bigger loan, and it's so difficult to shake off the debt. I don't see the fun in having a loan of sometimes £4,000 a year."

Owen works as a sound engineer and lives in east London.

CLASS OF 2004: Lucy Phillips, 21

Lucy is entering the third year of a classics degree at Cambridge University. She has funded her degree with savings from her gap year, help from her parents and a vacation job paying £3,000 a year. She doesn't "yet" have an overdraft, but expects to by June. "There's no way, with the amount of student loan you get, that you can afford to live once you've paid tuition fees and accommodation," she says."I'm fortunate enough to have my parents helping me out, but that's not the case with everyone.

"One of the reasons for going to university is becoming independent, but it's difficult to do that now - you have to rely on your parents during uni, and it will be more difficult to move out of home after. I think I might have to stay for a couple of years and get earning before I take on rent and bills of my own.

"When the people making these decisions were at university they received grants. It seems unfair that in the past people were receiving the same or better education than us and not paying for it.

"What concerns me is it's getting worse. In seven years' time, what students have now could seem good in comparison."

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