by Kristina Gruzdeva
In 2022, the cost of living crisis meant communities across the UK had to adjust their behaviours and their spending. Many needed to learn to navigate within a complex energy market. Prospective university students were in a similar position, being expected to make a cost-conscious decision about their degree education with limited understanding of their options. In research conducted for my PhD, I invited first-year students to participate in focus groups to explore their orientations to their degree. Students were recruited through online and on-campus campaigns that were run in the autumn of 2019/20. The overall sample consisted of 51 participants (39 female, 10 male and 2 non-binary; 28 from ethnic minority groups; 14 were ‘first in family’ students). All participants were first-year students who started their degree at a Russell Group University, with a balance across all five faculty groupings in the university. I developed a typology to show how students perceive their degree, their beliefs about the financial implications of going to university and how they define value for money. In England, undergraduate fees of £1000 were introduced more than 20 years ago, raised to £3000 in 2006, and to £9000 more than ten years ago. My findings suggest that even now, five years after the Higher Education and Research Act legislated for an HE market, it is problematic to rely on informed student choice as a basis for the market’s operation.
Students in the first category of the typology view their degree as an essential requirement for their career. Students in this category are enrolled in STEM or Medicine courses and have a clear idea of what they would like to do upon graduation. Their family background is diverse, with some choosing to follow their parents’ footsteps, and others being first in their family to go to university. Students in this category hold shared views on employability, graduate salaries, and value for money. The data show that employability and career aspirations are important to first-year students transitioning into HE (Mullen et al, 2019). Metrics of graduate employability gave these students some reassurance and helped them to narrow down their options in choosing courses. These students did not look for information about graduate salaries and explained this by studying for a degree that leads to in-demand jobs. They comment that information about graduate salaries was “already there” when they looked for other kinds of information about their degree. Students who view their degree as an essential requirement report that their degree provides good value for money.
The second category of students described their degree as an investment. These students also had a career-oriented approach to their education, but their career plans were less defined compared with the plans of students in the first category. They studied a wide range of degree courses and came from diverse backgrounds. When asked about their awareness around employability, some students reported that they had come across information about it, whereas others said that they did not know much. When prompted to explain why they did not search for such information, these students suggested their career plans had not crystallised yet, so they were not sure how to interpret such information and to what extent it would be relevant to them. As in the first category, these students reported that they did not look for information about graduate salaries. They assumed such information would not be relevant because they had not yet decided what to do upon graduation. They had a mix of views on value for money. Some believed that their degree would offer good value for money because it would open doors to many opportunities, whereas others had a different opinion. Perceptions of poor value for money were related to instances when students’ expectations had not been met. For example, a few students had expected more contact hours. Others had expected that their maintenance loan would cover the costs of their accommodation.
The third category of students described their degree as a desirable experience. These students were enrolled in Social Sciences and Humanities courses. Importantly, these students came from families where at least one parent holds a degree. Their decision to study at university was driven by their academic interests or a belief that getting accepted onto a course would be easy. When asked about whether they considered employability metrics, these students said that they did not. They also did not look for information related to graduate salaries. One student, reflecting on her decision to study at university, suggested that prospective students had tunnel vision and were not concerned about their career prospects. Two individuals commented that education is not about jobs and appeared to look down on the other members of their discussion groups, who shared the view that their education offered knowledge and skills for work. There was a mix of views on value for money. The social and wider personal benefits of studying for a degree were attributed to good value for money. In this category it was rare to find perceptions of poor value for money; such perceptions came from unfulfilled expectations related to contact hours.
Student career aspirations, or lack thereof, played a dominant role in shaping students’ views on their education and how they perceived value for money. Most students in my study did not actively search for information related to employability or graduate salaries; rather, they assumed the economic value of their degrees. These findings challenge the consumer-oriented approach to HE because focus group participants did not appear to act as informed consumers, which is problematic in an HE sector supposedly driven by market imperatives.
Kristina Gruzdeva is a Research Facilitator at the University of Birmingham. Kristina’s research interests are in higher education policy, mainly in relation to student finance, student choices, and marketisation. This blog is based on a chapter from her recently completed PhD. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org