Will university pay off?

This blog has been written by Mair Lawrence-Matthews, AccessHE Uni Connect Project Officer at London Higher. The “Will it pay off? The effect of the cost of living crisis on students’ higher education choices in London” briefing note is available on our website.

As it stands, going to university is a significant financial, and potentially lifelong, commitment. Students who choose to enter higher education can expect to graduate with a high student loan balance. A House of Commons Research Briefing states that the forecast average total loan balance among the cohort of borrowers who started their course in 2022/23 is £45,600 when they complete their course. The introduction of higher fees in 2011 has not deterred student entry numbers, with a steady growth from 24.7% in 2006 to 37.5% in 2022. However, is this now at risk of changing with the current cost of living crisis putting more pressure than ever on students and their families, and recent changes to Plan 5 loans (introduced in August 2023) set to increase the cost of going to university over a lifetime for some by over 50%? Will attending university still pay off for the Class of 23 and beyond?  

As a part of AccessHE’s commitment to supporting young Londoners to progress into higher education (HE), we’ve been conducting focus groups with current Year 12s and 13s to explore whether the cost of living crisis is affecting students’ decisions to enter higher education? Through four focus groups with our partner schools in North London, we’ve pulled our findings into a briefing note.  

The discussions indicated that students had formed opinions on university and had thought carefully about their reasons for attending. Our most interesting finding was that although students were still choosing to attend university, in spite of the financial climate, their perception around the value of HE was changing. Students saw the primary benefit of HE as being the potential to get into a high-earning, desirable career, above other factors such as independent living and new experiences. In fact, little discussion arose around the student experience and what else students may gain outside of a qualification besides a graduate job.  

Research conducted by Birkbeck, University of London and The Student Room supports this, showing that less than one in five (17%) prospective students feel that the opportunity to move away from home is important at this time. Today’s prospective students are now considering university through cost saving measures and future financial gains, rather than what the wider student and academic experience can offer them.  

Students who choose to move to London for university may face a larger financial commitment than those going to study elsewhere. Rent, for example, can be higher in the capital, with prices for a room currently averaging £971 per calendar month – up 19% from an average of £814 in 2022. The rising cost of student accommodation might encourage current Year 12 & 13 students from the capital  to stay at home and opt to live with their families – of which a large proportion already do – to save on rental costs and to take advantage of the wealth of universities on their doorsteps.  

At AccessHE, we’re planning to continue our research into this issue this year, running further focus groups with our North London partner schools, with an aim to produce a larger report examining the impact of the cost of living on prospective HE students.  

Student concerns around the cost of living are real. Research by Universities UK has shown that maintenance loans have not kept pace with inflation, so incoming undergraduates have less money to spend in real terms than previous cohorts. Even those eligible for the maximum loan available will now be £1000 worse off than if they worked for the national minimum wage.  

With no detail from any political party yet about the future of student fees and funding despite an imminent General Election,  widening participation teams across England are looking for ways to give students thorough information, advice and guidance on student finance and the cost of living; so all students, particularly those from low-income households feel attending university is a choice they can make. This is no different in London and London Higher’s AccessHE team continues in our mission to inform students of their options, building on our recent work producing a Student Cost of Living Guide based on real-life student journeys in the capital and our Film and TV: University Study and Career Guide debunking the myth that creative degree courses do not lead to secure post-graduate employment. 

If you have any questions regarding our ongoing research, please email