Student-university trust ‘weakens’ as cost of living bites

School-leavers showing less interest in wider campus life and increasingly view degree only as a route to employment, report suggests

June 20, 2024
Students relaxing on deck chairs at Brunel University London
Source: iStock/Peter Fleming

Cost pressures, concerns about debt and an increasing sense of “apathy” are eroding trust between students and universities, a report claims.

Such concerns are contributing to a “weakening of the student-provider ‘compact’”, as the experience promised by higher education bodies does not align with what undergraduates in find in terms of costs and engagement with wider campus life, according to a paper from London Higher’s AccessHE unit.

The report, which examines attitudes towards higher education and the cost-of-living crisis in London, found that cost pressures are inducing students to adopt a “transactional view” of higher education and “driving increasing levels of disaffection”. It was based in part on focus groups conducted with 79 A-level and BTEC students.

Campus resource collection: Helping students through the cost-of-living crisis

“Enthusiasm is giving way to apathy,” the document says, with students surveyed expressing less desire or reduced expectations about participating in wider campus life, and increasingly viewing university solely as a route to employment.

“The trust between provider and student is therefore more fragile than at any point since the introduction of higher fees,” it argues.

“It is important in this context that providers are transparent about their offer to students and particularly what the likely cost of that offer is, even if it is presented as a range. Otherwise, the relationship of trust – the provider-student compact – is at risk of weakening to the point that participation rates slow or even reverse.”

While the report did not find evidence that the cost-of-living crisis is resulting in fewer students going to university, it warned that financial worries are “constraining” choices, with a growing number of school-leavers choosing to study locally to save money.

“Given that student choice is a core underlying principle of widening participation work, and supposedly sits at the heart of the current HE system, the impacts we have observed relating to choice constraints raise fundamental questions about higher education’s continuing ability to serve as a vehicle for opportunity and social mobility,” the report adds.

Richard Boffey, head of AccessHE at London Higher, warned that these issues were “weakening” relations between students and universities.

“Incoming students seem more apathetic, many seeing university in purely transactional terms – a means to employment rather than an enriching experience they are enthusiastic about,” Dr Boffey said.

“This is concerning, particularly because young Londoners have historically pursued higher education out of genuine enthusiasm. Our findings indicate that these positive attitudes are on the brink of shifting.”

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