Students need a lesson in the facts of life

Would-be undergraduates need a crash course at the university of life, if the disturbing conclusions of a new report are true.
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This week's news that aspiring students are clueless about the living costs of university - the expense of keeping themselves fed, housed, clothed and in beer and club nights for one year - suggests that they must have the shock of their lives when they actually arrive on campus.

The majority of applicants underestimate how much money it takes to keep body and soul together, according to the first ever national survey of what factors influence young people's choice of university. Almost three- quarters (72 per cent) put the living costs at between pounds 2,000 and pounds 5,000, says the report, entitled Making the Right Choice, from the Institute of Employment Studies.

The institute questioned 20,000 university applicants in August last year. The actual cost is at the top end of that range - or even higher. Kingston University, for example, which is on the outskirts of London, tells potential students they will need to find pounds 6,000-pounds 6,500 for one year, excluding tuition fees.

Vice-chancellors, who sponsored the study along with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and the Higher Education Funding Council, are taking immediate action to ensure that students are better informed. "There is plenty of information available, but it obviously needs setting out differently to ensure that it is being disseminated properly," says Martin Harris, the chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

The survey found that applicants were savvier about tuition fees. Most seemed to know that the fees last year were pounds 1,000. This was not surprising, given the publicity surrounding the introduction of tuition fees. Even so, one in eight thought that fees were more than pounds 2,000. Black applicants and people aged over 25, as well as people who had family members who had been to university, were the worst informed.

There was also confusion about how much contribution, if any, had to be made to tuition fees. One in 10 did not know; about 50 per cent of mature applicants expected to contribute or did not know, compared with four out of five of the younger ones. It is a serious matter if mature applicants are being deterred from higher education out of ignorance. Their confusion may partly explain why mature applications were 14 per cent down last year.

Government information on the new financial arrangements was given in a 53-page booklet from the Department for Education and Employment last year, complete with a glossary, three annexes and a multitude of tables. Richard Pearson, director of the Institute for Employment Studies and one of the authors of the report, likens the booklet to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. "It's so opaque," he says. "It's the civil service covering their backs against every eventuality."

David Brown, the head of marketing and external relations at Southampton Institute, agrees that the information offered to students in the booklet does leave a lot to be desired. "This is an area where communication has just been very poor," he says.

Applicants are likely to become more wised up in the future as information about the new loans and fees spreads and as students become aware that grants have been abolished. "At the moment it's one of the ways a society pitches young people into reality," says Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University. "Up to the point they go to university they will really have been their parents' children."

Tony Higgins, the chief executive of Ucas, believes that cost is one of the last things students consider when deciding to go to university. "Money is not really a consideration," he says. "They will have heard something about loans and something about tuition fees but they won't pay very much attention to it. If they're asked about money, they then have to put their thinking caps on."

Despite the cost of attending university, students are still signing up in large numbers. In theory they have more choice of institutions and courses nowadays, but in practice their options are more limited by cost and geographical mobility, says the report. At many institutions there is an increasing trend for students to stay at home, mainly for financial reasons.

In follow-up interviews students made clear that their choice of location was partly related to the cost of travelling from home to the university and also the cost of living in the area. For example, many were put off going to London or other cities, for example Edinburgh, where the cost of living was thought to be higher.

The survey found mature applicants were much more willing to live at home to reduce costs than the young and less likely to want to work during the holidays, possibly because of family commitments. Black and Asian applicants were also more prepared to live at home to reduce costs than white applicants. So too were working-class applicants.

The traditional research-led university may still have 90 per cent or more students coming in at age 18 or 19. But new universities or colleges of higher education may have only 50 per cent of this age group.

What matters most to students when choosing a university is finding the right course, says the survey. Then comes the overall status of the university, including its reputation for employment prospects, followed by location, academic support facilities and social life. Black and Asian applicants cared more about the teaching and research reputations of universities than whites. Applicants under the age of 21 were more concerned about the social scene.

A few students questioned in follow-up interviews felt they lacked sufficient information to make choices. And many said they would like more accurate and more detailed, specific information on courses. Some were critical of their sources of information. The most used sources were the Ucas handbook and university prospectuses (used by more than 95 per cent); next came open days and visits to universities and school/college libraries; among the least utilised sources were electronic media, for example videos, CD-roms and the Internet (used by one-third).

The survey recommends that each university set up a one-stop shop - a place where applicants can go with all their questions, covering everything from courses and finances to jobs on campus and social life.

At the moment, applicants have to seek information from all over the campus. They have to go to the academic department to find out about the course, to another place for accommodation and to a third location for information on campus jobs or employment prospects. Pearson would like to see the one-stop shops being electronically accessible so that applicants can access a range of information from home.

He would also like to see prospective students developing a checklist when they are making their choice of university. They would thereby be able to tick off the factors that are important - choice of subject, course structure, course quality, being away or close to home, type of university, cost of living and so on.

Universities are still very product-driven, says Pearson. They insist that students take them on their own terms and they are disinclined to reach out to the community. Things are changing but much more can be done, according to Trevor Thorne, the head of marketing and public relations at Kingston University. "We have to break through the anonymity that prevails in higher education and the ivory towers. A lot of people can be very intimidated by a university. People who have been away from the education process for a long time find it much more difficult to make contact, and we have got to make it easier."


`Making the Right Choice' is available from CVCP (20 Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9HQ) at pounds 7.50, including post and packing


THE GEOGRAPHIC mix of students at Sussex has changed over the decades, reflecting students' financial fortunes. In the late-1960s and early-1970s, the campus buzzed with students on grants a long way from home who stayed put. During the 1980s, it went quiet as they tended to come from a 100-mile radius and go home at weekends to save money as the grant was eroded. Now, with no grants, the campus has come alive again. Students are living at or near home, and using the university for their social life.

Sussex University has already acted on research on potential students and now puts more emphasis on open days than higher education fairs. It has discovered parents tend to accompany daughters (rather than sons) to interview days and builds in time for parents questions.

In the last two years, it has also responded to another trend - the desire of traditional 18-year-old students, who have historically been keen to travel long distances to university, to stay close to home due to cost. The result has been a deal between Sussex and Brighton universities and Chichester Institute, with local sixth form and further education colleges called a "progression accord". Students who apply to one of the three local higher education institutions are guaranteed an offer of a place. "It gives us a sound base for meeting our intake target," says Ted Nakhle, Sussex's academic secretary. "We get students who have thought more carefully and are better informed about the programme they're coming to do."