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Students ‘working 50 hours a week’ as living costs bite

Image: Tero Vesalainen, via Shutterstock

Student Academic Experience Survey shows increased sense of value for money but growing work pressures

More UK university students believe their degree is good value for money, but the time they spend doing paid work has increased as the cost of living crisis endures.

According to the 2024 Student Academic Experience Survey, around 39 per cent of students see their course as good value for money, up from 35 per cent in 2022 and 37 per cent in 2023. Published by Advance HE and the Higher Education Policy Institute, the survey is based on responses of more than 10,000 full-time UK undergraduates.

Perceptions of value for money hit their lowest point in the 18 years of the survey in 2021, at the height of the Covid pandemic, when they dropped to 27 per cent. The high point of the last 11 years came in 2013, when most undergraduates in England were paying £3,000 a year rather £9,000. At this time, 50 per cent of students saw their courses as good value for money.

International students behind positivity

The survey, published on 12 June, shows that positive perceptions of value for money have rallied among international students. This year, 49 per cent of students from the European Union said they felt their course was good value, a 14 per cent increase on 2023. Meanwhile, 45 per cent of international students from outside the EU said they were getting a good deal, up from 38 per cent in 2023.

Domestic students were also more likely to perceive good value, with the proportion from Wales reporting positively up 3 percentage points to 40 per cent year on year. Among those from England it was up 1 percentage point to 36 per cent, and from Northern Ireland up 10 percentage points to 41 per cent.

Scotland—where tuition is free to students from Scotland—saw a decline in the proportion reporting good value for money, from 51 per cent to 48 per cent.

There was also positive news about how students view the quality of their university experience when compared to their expectations.

Some 22 per cent of respondents said university had been better than they had predicted, up from 17 per cent in 2022 and 19 per cent last year. The proportion saying it had been worse fell over the same period, from 17 per cent in 2022 to 13 per cent this year.

This has been accompanied by a strong improvement in student ratings of teaching and assessment. This year, a record high of 68 per cent of respondents said they were satisfied with their timetabled contact hours, compared with 66 per cent in 2023 and 63 per cent in 2022.

Counting the cost

However, the survey suggests that students are still feeling the effects of the cost of living crisis, which represented the biggest concern among students who felt they received poor value for money. Forty-four per cent said living costs had contributed to this, up from 41 per cent last year and 35 per cent in 2022.

The second-biggest concern was tuition fees, which was cited by 35 per cent of students this year—although this is down from 59 per cent in 2021.

Longer working hours

Students reported increases in the combined number of hours they study and work each week—from 35 hours in 2021 to 42 hours this year. Some groups, such as those who have caring responsibilities, those who commute and those aged over 26, work and study on average more than 50 hours per week, the survey suggests.

Hepi director Nick Hillman said that among students undertaking paid work, around half were doing about 50 hours in total when combined with course commitments.

“Some students are doing levels of work way beyond what a full-time job is designated at, and way beyond what is probably good for their wellbeing,” Hillman said.

Lower dropout consideration

Despite concerns about the cost of living crisis, the percentage of undergraduates who said they had considered dropping out of university fell from 28 per cent in 2023 to 25 per cent this year.

In an election year, just 80 per cent of full-time undergraduates said they are registered to vote, and only 68 per cent intend to do so. This is lower than comparable results from a separate, smaller Hepi study from May last year, which found that 89 per cent were registered and 85 per cent as intended to use their vote.

Artificial intelligence

For the first time this year, the survey asked if students used artificial intelligence programs in their work in a way permitted by their university. Just over 60 per cent of students said that they did—with the proportion highest among men, international students and students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.

Alison Johns, Advance HE chief executive, said the survey was the “evidenced voice of students cutting through the noise and reporting their experience as it is”.

“We can see they are increasingly positive about their academic experience and that they are hard-working—as are the institutions and the staff where they are learning,” she said.

“Of course, the report shows where enhancements can still be made—that’s its purpose. But it also shows that the public and policy discourse needs to move on to how we achieve a sustainable financial model for the national success story that is UK higher education where all this talent can thrive for the benefit of everyone.”