Today's students - careerist, apolitical and stalked by debt

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Forget the love of learning for its own sake - higher salaries are the "educational" goal for new undergraduates. And nearly one-third of them would quit college tomorrow if they were offered a good job.

Forget the love of learning for its own sake - higher salaries are the "educational" goal for new undergraduates. And nearly one-third of them would quit college tomorrow if they were offered a good job.

This week, we publish the results of an exclusive Independent on Sunday survey, a snapshot of the finances, attitudes and work habits of undergraduates at 14 of Britain's leading universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick, Birmingham, Southampton, Newcastle and London.

It represents a wide-ranging sample of opinion among students at a time of unprecedented participation in higher education - and unrivalled national wealth.

The 21st-century students chose to go to university not for the love of research or the desire to acquire knowledge for its own sake. Nearly two-thirds said improving their job prospects lay behind their decision to study.

More than 35 per cent said they expected to "earn lots of money" when they graduated, while nearly 30 per cent indicated that they would quit their studies tomorrow if offered a good job.

Just to show that the students of 2000 really do recognise a good deal when they see one, more than one-third expect to live at their parents' expense when they graduate.

"Back in the heady days of the 1960s, if you were at university you were one of the very few. Your future was assured so you could afford to take your future for granted and go out on the streets and attack capitalist society," said Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University.

"Now, students are much less secure. They have to be much more forward-looking and that makes them more sober and serious. Higher education is seen as a stepping stone to the rest of one's life, rather than something to be enjoyed in its own right."

Meanwhile, the central questions of life are taking a backseat. More than 60 per cent support no political party, and nearly three-quarters have never protested against anything in their lives. Nearly eight out of 10 admit some kind of religious belief, and more than half go to church at least once a year. But while 37 per cent of students belief in God, the majority (39 per cent) "believe in something but are not sure what it is". Students were more hard-headed about such questions as the standard of their accommodation and leisure facilities. They also had clear views about their own lecturers and courses. Sixteen per cent of students rate their lecturers as poor or very poor, although nearly 30 per cent say they are excellent. Most (57 per cent) think they are only fair.

Nevertheless, the largest number of students - three-quarters - were satisfied with their choice of university. Nearly 70 per cent were nearly or completely satisfied with their choice of course.

But the amount of time they actually spend on their studies varies. Sixty-one per cent spend less than 10 hours a week in lectures - although timetables vary and 70 per cent of students say they go to at least three-quarters of their lectures and tutorials. Nearly three-quarters spend less than 15 hours a week on academic work in their own time.

Professor Smithers said: "In the days of tuition fees and maintenance grants, higher education was given out free. Now, people are making sacrifices and investing their own time.

"It's healthy because it is an organic way of levering up standards, just like the independent schools here, or higher education in the United States."

There is widespread concern that the rising cost of higher education is kicking away the university ladder from the poor. Certainly, there is no shortage of material comforts for those who are lucky enough to be studying at university.

The comfortable generation of today is laden with the gadgets and luxuries of the 21st century - mobile telephones, computers, televisions and video recorders abound.

Thirty-six per cent spend more than £30 a week on drink, and nearly two-thirds admit to having taken an illegal drug.

But these figures hide the increasing proportion of students who face having to work to fund their way through university. Forty per cent of students in the IoS survey held down a part-time job, with one-third working more than 16 hours a week - well above the recommended maximum if they are to keep up studies.

Owain James, new president of the National Union of Students, warned that the figures represented an increasing "underclass" of students for whom university was "all work and no play".

He said: "There's a substantial underclass. One of the most important trends has been the increasing number of people who have to work to support themselves. They have paid employment to fund themselves through.

"They are forced to miss lectures and miss deadlines, and that is not acceptable."

Additional reporting by Patricia Lourenco and Amy Anderson.