Is university worth it? Young people's motivations, aspirations and views on student finance- APPUG report 2021

Secretariat 29 October 2021

The new report ‘Is university worth it? Young people’s motivations, aspirations and views on student finance’ , collates fresh evidence on prospective students’ views of the student finance system and potential reforms as the higher education sector awaits a government consultation on changes to post-18 education funding.

The poll of 1000 students* found that those who had been eligible for free school meals were significantly more likely to plan to stay at home to go to university (34%, compared with 18% of those who had not been eligible for free school meals). Among those for whom neither of their parents had attended university, 30% were planning to study locally, compared to just 9% of those who had both parents attend university.

Through interviews with students and focus groups, Public First encountered many students who were planning to go to university locally to study a specific course.  Disadvantaged students were also more likely to decide on their choice of university based on living costs. 34% of year 13 students eligible for free schools meals were planning on staying in their hometowns to go to university to keep costs down, for example, compared with 18% of those who had never been eligible for free school meals. The option to study for a ‘good job’ near home was also most highly valued by less advantaged students.

Despite concerns about living costs, a clear majority of prospective or new students believe going to university to be worth the cost (66% vs. 5%). 

Polling also found that students from less affluent families were much better informed about the costs associated with university and the financial help available to them to get through university. Those who had been eligible for free school meals were significantly more confident about the loans they could secure, with 46% saying they definitely knew compared with 37% of those who had not been eligible for free school meals.  

Across the board, the report concluded that:

  • Students are clear on why they want to go to university and see it as a way to bigger and better things. When asked about motivations for applying to university the top answer across all demographics was ‘to get a job in a career I want to pursue’ (63%). The lifelong benefit having a degree brings was at the forefront of students’ minds, particularly from those from less affluent backgrounds.   
  • Significant gaps exist in the resources available to help prospective students financially plan for university, with many relying on information from family and friends. 57% of those in their final year of school/college did not know how much they would need for accommodation or food.  
  • Over three quarters of students think the current interest rate charged on student loans is unfair. Students overwhelmingly felt the interest rate charged was unfair. 81% of students also agreed student loan debt should be wiped after 30 years. 
  • Less than a quarter (22%) of students agreed there should be a limit on the number of students that can go to university each year. Young people believe higher education should be open to everyone that wants to learn and takes it seriously with no cap placed on aspiration.   


Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group and former Universities Minister, said:

“These findings demonstrate that young people overwhelmingly wish to have the opportunity to study at university and achieve a degree - not simply to achieve a better job or salary, but to fulfil their potential and become a better educated and skilled individual.

“With demand for university places at record levels, we must not place a cap on aspiration by crudely attempting to dictate to the next generation where and what they can and cannot study. 

“Pulling up the drawbridge on students who want to learn through reforms that ultimately reduce student choice risks damaging the life chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and throwing the government's levelling up strategy into doubt. It is time that policy makers work with and not against the aspirations and ambitions of those who wish to make a better life for themselves.'

Daniel Zeichner MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group, said:

“This research busts many myths around the attitudes of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds – they really get the difference that going to university will make to their lives, they see it as a game-changer. They understand that it is expensive, but they can see the benefits. So, far from trying to close down what some describe as ‘low-value’ courses, we should promote student choice and celebrate and support the transformational role that all our universities play. Policy-makers need to catch up with those on the ground who actually know what it’s like to be left behind.”