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Hard work, money worries ... and hopes for a bright future

The impact of the recession on students' daily lives has been revealed in a detailed survey of 2,000 full-time undergraduates

The fourth biennial Sodexo-Times Higher Education University Lifestyle Survey asked students everything from how many lectures they miss each week to how many hours they spend in the library. They reported more worries and more debt and almost a third have considered abandoning their studies, suggesting today's students do not have an easy ride. But the survey also shows that most are pretty confident that they are making a worthwhile investment in their career and that, now more than ever, a university education is seen as the path to a better future. Rebecca Attwood reports.

RECESSION

More than one in 10 students (11 per cent) have changed their course or career plan as a result of the tough economic climate.

Survey respondents spoke of attending university in order to re-train after losing their job, of choosing course options they thought would be more attractive to employers, and of abandoning their first-choice career because of heightened competition.

One explained: "Prospects in the banking sector are not as good now. I am looking to the public sector as it is more secure."

Some said they are thinking about careers they would not previously have considered because they offer better job security. Others put their first-choice career on hold temporarily.

One said: "It's highly unlikely that I will get a job in the field I want to be in straight after I graduate so I decided to explore other areas and then return to the first career, maybe a few years after I graduate."

Students are also changing their courses in a bid to make themselves stand out from the crowd. "I switched some modules because they would not be as useful for a job as others," said one.

Many said they decided to go to university because of the credit crunch. They wanted to be sheltered from the job market while improving their CV.

"While the economy is like this, I felt it better to stand back, and use the time to re-train to put myself in a better position for higher salaries and more job prospects as a graduate in a few years' time," one explained.

Several students said they had entered higher education after being laid off, in the hope that a qualification would help them to get their career back on track.

CASH CONSTRAINTS

Cash constraints are forcing students to make changes to their lifestyles.

Nearly six in 10 undergraduates (59 per cent) said they are going out less often because they needed to save money, and almost half (46 per cent) were choosing cheaper venues.

Money worries are also affecting eating habits. More than four in 10 (42 per cent) have changed their diet to cut costs, and a majority said they eat less healthily as a result.

Another shift is the growing number of students living at home.

The proportion of survey respondents living with their parents or family has risen from 13 per cent in 2008 to 17 per cent this year.

This is much more likely to be the case among those studying at modern universities, where 23 per cent live at home, compared with 10 per cent at traditional universities.

A trend that has continued since the last survey is the high proportion of students (65 per cent) who do most of their socialising off campus.

WORRIES

Students remain overwhelmingly preoccupied with their class of degree.

This is the most frequently cited worry, a cause for concern for almost seven in 10 respondents (69 per cent).

There has been a major change since the University Lifestyle Survey began in the number of students who find it difficult to balance the academic, social and work aspects of life. In 2004, this concern featured for only 41 per cent, but today it troubles 67 per cent.

Students who work in term time are more likely to say they struggle with this. Juggling competing commitments is a problem for 75 per cent of students who work in term time and for 62 per cent of those who don't.

Students are also far more worried about their heavy academic workload than they once were. The proportion concerned about this has soared from 30 per cent in 2004 to 62 per cent in 2010, rising with every survey.

Another trend is the growing number of students who fear feeling isolated. Just 10 per cent of students worried about this in 2004, but in 2010 35 per cent did.

The number with day-to-day financial worries has also risen steadily to 47 per cent.

Those who combine paid work with their studies are more likely to have money worries.

Given the tough job market, it would be logical to assume that more students would be worried about finding a job when they leave university.

However, the proportion concerned about this has fallen over the past two years, from 49 per cent to 46 per cent. In some subjects, however, students are feeling more anxious, as are those in later years of study. Law students are the most worried about finding a job (63 per cent are).

Despite rising levels of debt, the proportion anxious about the amount of money they will owe when they graduate has dropped from 42 per cent in 2008 to 37 per cent in 2010.

Only 2 per cent of today's students said they have no concerns at all.

DEBT

Most students still see their debt as an acceptable investment in their future career, despite a rise in the amounts they incur.

In 2004, under the old fee regime, only 2 per cent of students expected to graduate with more than £20,000 of debt; by 2008 this had risen to 18 per cent.

In 2010, however, more than a quarter (28 per cent) did, and half expected to graduate more than £15,000 in the red. Average debt has risen to £19,562.

Despite this, the proportion that saw the debt as probably or definitely a worthwhile investment in their future had grown slightly, from 64 per cent in 2008 to 67 per cent in 2010.

However, almost a quarter of students (24 per cent) stated that their level of debt is not acceptable.

Those studying health-related subjects were most likely to see their debt as definitely acceptable, while in the arts and humanities 33 per cent were unhappy.

Just over three quarters (76 per cent) have a loan. Around half (49 per cent) rely on their family for money, making parents the second most important source of cash. Students at old universities were almost twice as likely to rely on parents.

Just under a third (31 per cent) of students had a part-time job during term time. At new universities 37 per cent had a term-time job, compared with 24 per cent at older universities.

DROPPING OUT

For the first time, the survey asked students whether they had considered dropping out of university. Worryingly, almost a third (30 per cent) said they had.

The proportion is higher among women than men, among students in later years of study and among those at new universities.

Those who juggle term-time paid work with their studies are also more likely to consider quitting their course than those who do not (35 per cent against 28 per cent).

Academic pressure was the main reason cited. This was a factor for almost half (48 per cent) of the students who considered abandoning university prematurely.

Nearly as many (46 per cent) attributed their doubts about whether they could continue to financial difficulties, 40 per cent cited poor health, depression or stress, and 35 per cent said they did not like their course.

OTHER FACTS

- More than half of students (55 per cent) socialise for two hours or less a day, but 16 per cent of students spend five hours or more on their social lives.

- Students do not have regular eating habits. Almost half of them (46 per cent) miss lunch at least once a week and one in 10 never eat breakfast.

- Most students (58 per cent) are happy with the amount of contact time they have with academic staff.

- Students seem to be addicted to social networking sites. The proportion spending 11-20 hours a week on sites such as Facebook and MySpace has grown to 14 per cent, with 11 per cent spending even longer.

- More than six in 10 (62 per cent) chose to do most of their work at home, rather than in the university library.

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