Dropout rates could soar as students face a cost-of-living crisis under pressure, a university leader has warned.
“It would be a tragedy” for young people to feel they have to drop out of higher education because they worry about whether they will be able to make ends meet and try to balance study and work, said Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK (UUK).
Many people are taking extra part-time hours to support their studies, and this is an issue affecting more students from diverse backgrounds than before, she said.
Speaking to the PA news agency, she said: “I think this is probably a wider cross section of the student population than we would have been particularly concerned about before, because students who may have previously asked their parents to sort out a loan top-up or help them when they run out of money at the end of the semester” , we conclude, I think, that perhaps the parents cannot do this because they have their own financial pressures, and then the cost of accommodation goes up very quickly.
“I think what we’re really worried about is that I’ve heard from a lot of people in universities that their students are taking perhaps more work, paid work, than would be ideal.
“So less time to study, more time to work, and ultimately it can make them unable to succeed in their course and put them at risk of dropping out again.”
When asked if she was worried about the increase in churn rates, she said: “It’s a worry. We don’t have data yet.
“Universities collect data around this time of year so it should start to clear up if there is a pattern to be concerned about, but I suspect we will see an increase in dropout rates. And it is not only new students, but also students returning for the second and third year who make the difficult decision to discontinue their studies.
“I think it would be a bit of a tragedy if we lose good students – who should be able to continue and complete their courses – because they are worried about how to make ends meet.”
Universities offer student support in a variety of ways, from free breakfasts in Durham to £150 energy grants for eligible households in York.
But UUK, the collective voice of 140 universities, has urged the government to do more to help universities in turn support students.
It said students risk becoming a “forgotten group” in the cost-of-living crisis because the value of their loans cannot keep up with inflation.
UUK wants targeted government funding for UK students and action to ensure support is protected from inflation.
Ms Stern said: “While we know the government is under extreme pressure, we hope they will pay special attention to the needs of students who might otherwise be dropped off at university instead of completing their courses.
“While universities are making their own aid funds available, I think they could use some help here.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We are aware of the financial challenges facing students as global inflation rises. That’s why every year we increase the amount students can access in the form of loans and grants to cover living expenses and other costs.
“Higher education providers can continue to support underprivileged students with the Student Bonus, for which the Student Affairs Office is making available £261m this year.
“Many universities also do a fantastic job of supporting their students through various programs and we encourage any student who is concerned about their situation to speak to their university.”