According to the survey of students, there is a lot of information available on the fees and student loan system in England, but it is often inaccessible and unclear. Universities UK has said that a "postcode lottery" has developed in terms of the financial advice available to prospective university students, with provision differing from one school and area to the next. Many of the myths and misunderstandings around the fees system, it said, risks putting people off due to unfounded concerns around costs and 'debt'.
Universities UK is recommending that the government works in partnership with schools, universities and campaign groups to simplify the information on fees and loans and to ensure it is accessible to all prospective students. Today's call is backed by Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com and head of the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance Information 2011-2013. Universities UK plans to bring these groups together to discuss practical next steps.
The survey revealed that many students are not aware that the graduate contributions system differs to conventional 'debt'. Focus groups found that students were not always aware, for example, that the amount graduates pay back each month for their student loan depends on what they earn, not on how much is borrowed. According to analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), only 17% of graduates – those in the highest earning jobs – will have fully repaid their loans by the time they are written off 30 years after graduation (under the new starting salary threshold of £25,000). Students are not aware generally that the vast majority of student loans receive a considerable, taxpayer-funded subsidy.
The survey and focus groups – conducted for Universities UK by the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) and Portland Communications – suggested also that students want more information about how universities spend the income they receive from tuition fees.
Concerns around the student funding system in England, and its fairness and sustainability, have led to a review of post-18 education and funding, launched in February 2018 and due to conclude in early 2019.
Prospective and undergraduate students need clearer and better-targeted financial advice on the full implications of taking out a student loan
Prospective students are uncertain what universities spend tuition fee income on
Living costs are a more significant concern for current undergraduate students than the level of tuition fees
There was strong agreement that going to university generally helps graduates to earn more money in the longer term (64% of prospective students and 77% of undergraduate students)
More than half of students believed that they should make some contribution to the cost of their education.
Professor Dame Janet Beer, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, said: "The survey suggests that students need clearer and more accessible information on student loan repayments, and student finance in general. There seems to be a postcode lottery in terms of the financial advice available to prospective university students. There are differences depending on the advice available in schools and variations from one area to the next. This is vitally important information and we cannot leave it to chance. Universities have an important role to play here, but it must be led by government, in partnership with schools and campaign groups.
"It is evident also that students need better information on what they will get for their graduate contribution, including how tuition fee income is spent. Individual universities are increasingly including information on their websites to explain to students how this income is spent. But the information must become more accessible to students, and explain how fee income covers a range of areas such as libraries, sports facilities, careers advice, and counselling services.
"Whatever people's views on the current tuition fee and student loans system, it is clear that its structure has allowed many myths and misunderstandings to develop. It is high time these were addressed, or we risk seeing prospective students being put off university due to misguided concerns about costs and 'debt'. The current review of post-18 education funding in England provides an opportunity to address many of these concerns."
Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com and Head of the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance Information 2011-2013, said: "For over 25 years we have educated our youth into what we call a debt when they go to university, but never properly educated them about debt. And now the myths, misunderstandings and confusion around student loans are finally coming close to boiling point.
"The system changed in 2012, and the hundreds of thousands of graduates since then are shocked and scared when they are sent damaging and mostly meaningless statements by the Student Loans Company showing huge interest added each month. For many, this is meaningless as they won't repay most or even any of that interest. In practice, what we call a debt for most works far more like an additional 30-year 9% additional income tax in earnings over £25,000. That isn't cheap, but it is realistic.
"For too long, student finance has been a battered political punch bag. To score points, many deliberately play on the '£60,000 debt burden', yet that's not the practical impact on most people. You can argue that the current system is wrong, without the bitter scaremongering that risks putting young people off going to university for the wrong reasons. We need to change the language of loan statements, and we need schools, universities and government to educate. This is a huge financial commitment and people need to understand it before they sign up."
Dr Graeme Atherton, Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), said: "This study, which builds on work that NEON has been doing with prospective students over the last four years on student finance, shows that it is crucial that we adopt a more systematic approach to supporting students in making decisions regarding entry into higher education. There is a need for a student finance curriculum developed with students, which outlines what they need to know about student finance at each point as they progress through school and college. This curriculum would provide a common framework within which universities, schools and voluntary sector organisations can deliver the more comprehensive information, advice and guidance on student finance and money management they so clearly need."
The report from Universities UK and the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) – The financial concern of students – is available to download.
The research aims to add the student view to the current debate. It focuses on how current and prospective students perceive the current student finance system in England, and measures their understanding of it.
The report is based on an online quantitative survey, conducted by Portland Communications, and on focus groups conducted by NEON. Portland Communications conducted the online survey with 1,505 individuals aged between 16 and 24-years-old, between December 1 2017 and December 11 2017. Around one third of individuals were full or part-time students, one third prospective students and one third not considering applying to university. The focus groups, undertaken between January and March 2018, were with 217 students in years 12 and 13, who were undertaking A-levels or BTEC qualifications. Students were sought from colleges / schools in Norwich, London (South East London and Dagenham), Manchester, Derby, Kent, Hull, Plymouth and Sunderland.
The National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) is the professional organisation supporting those involved in widening access to higher education. The organisation grew from the need for a strong, coherent community of professionals that could support learners from underrepresented backgrounds to enter higher education. Visit: www.educationopportunities.co.uk/
Martin Lewis is founder of MoneySavingExpert.com He was asked in 2011 to head up a student finance taskforce to try to bust myths and misunderstandings about the major changes in 2012 to the fee and funding system in England. The MoneySavingExpert website includes a section on Student Loans Mythbusting: The truth about uni fees, loans & grants
The government's review of post-18 education funding in England invited initial evidence by May 2018. Universities UK submitted evidence, highlighting the need for more clarity around tuition fees and the costs and benefits of higher education.