Dropouts ‘could rise’ as university students struggle in cost-of-living crisis

Dropout rates could rise as under-pressure students struggle amid the cost-of-living crisis, a universities leader has warned.

It would be a “tragedy” if young people felt they had to quit their higher education courses because they are worried about being able to make ends meet and trying to balance study with work, Universities UK (UUK) chief executive Vivienne Stern said.

Many are taking on extra hours in part-time jobs to support their studies, and it is an issue affecting more students from different backgrounds than seen before, she said.

Universities UK chief executive Vivienne Stern is worried student dropout rates could rise as under-pressure students struggle amid the cost of living crisis (Arif Gardner/AG Studios/PA)
Universities UK chief executive Vivienne Stern (Arif Gardner/AG Studios/PA)

In an interview with the PA news agency, she said: “I think it’s probably a broader section of the kind of student population than we would have been previously particularly concerned about, because students who previously would have been able to ask their parents to sort of top up their loan or help them out when they ran out of money towards the end of term, we’re finding, I think, that perhaps parents can’t do that because they’ve got their own financial pressures and then accommodation costs are going up very fast.

“I think that what we’re really worried about is I’ve heard from lots of people in universities that their students are taking on perhaps more work, paid work, than would be ideal.

“So less time to study, more time working and, in the end, that might have the effect that they’re not able to succeed in their course and again lead to the risk of them dropping out.”

Asked if she was concerned about a rise in the dropout rate, she said: “That’s the worry. We don’t have figures yet.

“Universities do data collection around this time of year so it should start to become clearer whether there’s a pattern to be worried about, but I suspect we’ll see an increase in dropout rates. And it won’t just be new students, it’ll be students returning for second and third years who are making the hard decision to discontinue their course.

“And I think that would be a bit of a tragedy if we lost good students – who should be able to continue and complete their courses – because they’re worried about making ends meet.”

Universities have been offering help to students in various ways, from free breakfasts at Durham to energy grants worth £150 for eligible households at York.

But UUK, the collective voice of 140 universities, has called on the Government to do more to help universities to in turn support students.

It said students risk becoming the “forgotten group” in the cost-of-living crisis as the value of their loans fails to keep up with inflation.

UUK wants targeted Government hardship funding for UK students and action to ensure that support is protected against inflation.

Ms Stern said: “Even though we know that the Government is under extraordinary pressure, we hope they will pay particular attention to the needs of students who might otherwise find themselves dropping out of university instead of completing their courses.

“Whilst universities are making available their own hardship funds, I think they could do with some help here.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We recognise the financial challenges students face with the rise in global inflation. That is why we have continued to increase the amount students can access through loans and grants for living and other costs every year.

“Higher education providers can continue to support students in hardship by drawing on the student premium, for which £261 million of funding is available through the Office for Students this year.

“Many universities are also doing fantastic work to support their students through a variety of programmes and we urge any student who is worried about their circumstances to speak to their university.”