Drink and be merry... until the credit runs out

With PCs, mobile phones and boozy nights out, today's students may appear affluent. But, according to a new lifestyle survey, many are heavily in debt - and deeply worried about it. Lucy Hodges reports on how the ending of grants has hurt undergraduates
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The Independent Online

The news that undergraduates spend £20 of their precious money on alcohol every week will not help the National Union of Students to persuade taxpayers to cough up more for their living costs. Nor will the information that the vast majority of students have mobile phones, CD-players, televisions and computers.

But we should probably be looking at the student survey, published today, in another light. Youth culture requires you to have a mobile phone and a CD-player, just as student culture a generation ago required a battered record collection, four coffee mugs and a Bob Dylan poster.

Tutors expect essays to be typed and students to use the internet for research. Therefore, computers are crucial. Our standards have risen. We are a more professional society. And the student lifestyle dictates that young people socialise energetically, preferably in the pub, learn to hold their drink and to chatter endlessly on their mobiles.

Nevertheless, the report from Unite, the company that provides rooms for students, gives a sobering picture of the student lifestyle. One in four students say that they are in financial trouble. At the beginning of the academic year 2001-2, they were in debt to an average of £4,203, an increase of £877 over last year when Unite carried out a similar survey. The amount they expect to owe at the end of their degree has increased by £1,107 to £8,133. Just under a third of students have an overdraft from their bank. A further one in 10 owe money to credit card companies or their parents. Hardly surprising, then, that so many are trying to forget their burdens in a pint of bitter.

The survey, based on 1,068 undergraduates, is the first to question students who entered university after the Government's new higher education reforms. They are people who have been entirely dependent on student loans and have not had access to grants. That is what makes it so interesting, says Professor Clare Callendar of South Bank University, an expert on student finance.

She is concerned at the big increase in debt being suffered by students from low socioeconomic groups, compared with those from better-off backgrounds. Social classes AB owe 14 per cent more than a year ago, whereas the debts of the bottom social classes have increased by 46 per cent. "That is a direct result of changes in student funding introduced by the Government, which saw grants being abolished and students being forced to rely on loans," she says.

Another result of the policy changes has been the big leap in the level of debt between the first and last years of a degree. One would expect debt to rise as students progress through a course. But students in their first and second year have seen their debt increase by less than £150 in the past year, while those in their third and subsequent years have seen debt rise by £2,291, reflecting the introduction of tuition fees.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the number of students who are working part-time during term has increased significantly from 30 per cent to 43 per cent. Another finding, which presumably reflects parental support, shows that many more state school than privately educated pupils are working: two-fifths compared with one-third.

It is heartening to know that despite all this debt and paid work, students still believe it is worth going to university. The vast majority (96 per cent) feel that higher education is a worthwhile experience and that the money they are spending is a good investment in the future. Most students are keen on the university they have chosen, but 17 per cent say they would have chosen differently if they had their time over again.

The course on offer continues to be the most important consideration in students' choice, but more than one-fifth (22 per cent) now cite university league tables, too. League tables feature larger in the minds of students from higher social classes.

The survey reveals that more than half of students agree that since going to university they feel under a lot more stress than before. And life is particularly stressful for women, those from the lower social classes and those studying at new universities.

The main cause of stress is financial worries. One in four students now admits to struggling with some bills and credit-card debt. One-sixth (18 per cent) are managing to keep up but find it a constant struggle, while a further 4 per cent say they have fallen seriously behind with some bills, and 2 per cent have fallen behind with all their bills.

Asked what they think of recent ideas mooted by the Government to replace the current system of loans with a mixture of a graduate tax and grants, the students opted for the status quo. Forty-six per cent said they preferred what they had now; 33 per cent liked the idea of the change.

It is just as well, perhaps, that ministers have killed off the proposals for a graduate tax. That happened because focus groups of ordinary voters showed the idea to be unpopular. The consultation paper due to be published shortly on student support is expected to list one or more options for reform; the graduate tax idea may feature, but not as a proposal.

Grants for poorer students are thought to be high on the Government's agenda, as well as charging commercial rates of interest on student loans. Both are ideas that have emerged from the Institute of Public Policy Research. Charging commercial rates on loans would bring in more than £400m and would enable the grants to be funded. The NUS likes the former, but not the latter. "We are campaigning for more money for the poorest students," says Owain James, NUS president. "The scandal – as this survey shows – is that this government has been hitting the poorest students the hardest."

So, although the survey shows that student ownership of mobiles has risen by 11 percentage points to 86 per cent, higher than mobile-phone ownership among the general public, the NUS points out that poor students are finding it hard to survive.

Two-thirds may say they would rather spend money on socialising than on accommodation; but 20 per cent spend nothing on drink.