2014 Student Lifestyle Survey shows how increased debt is changing student attitudes

Robert de la Bedoyere

Sodexo’s 2014 University Lifestyle survey is the first since significant changes to the UK university fees structure in 2012. With the sharp rise in university tuition fees, Sodexo has found that UK students taking a much more complex approach when deciding whether or not to attend university.

Sodexo is the world’s largest provider of services that improve quality of life. Operating in 80 countries, Sodexo serves 75 million consumers a day via a combination of on-site services, benefits and rewards services, and personal and home services. Two thousand full-time undergraduate students from 144 universities participated in this year’s survey which analyses the student experience; questions cover everything from how students fund their study, to their lifestyle and eating habits. The survey has been conducted biennially since its inception in 2004. 

Since the last Sodexo report in 2012, expected student debt levels have increased dramatically. Seventeen per cent of students expect to take on over £40,000 worth of debt as opposed to 2 per cent in 2012, 58 per cent expect debt of at least £20,000. The massive financial impact of attending university means that students are carefully weighing up whether to go to university at all and the incentive for attending is changing.

"Universities will have to work harder to demonstrate the value of higher education to students.” 

Today’s students are more focused on the end-game: 76 per cent are choosing to take the plunge in order to improve their future employment opportunities and 62 per cent to increase their earning power. This represents a significant increase since the survey was first launched – in 2004 only 36 per cent of students went to university with the primary aim of increasing future earnings.

Students want to be guaranteed a return on investment and no longer consider university as simply the next logical step after A-levels. Jane Longmore, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Southampton Solent University and co-author of the survey, commented: “This year’s survey results suggest that a time bomb may be ticking: the percentage of students who think of higher education as ‘the next obvious step’ diminished from 42 per cent among second and third years to 35 per cent among the most recent cohort. This finding prompts an interesting question:  would nearly two-thirds of students be drawn to a plausible alternative to higher education if their return on investment could be better justified elsewhere? The Australian experience would seem to suggest otherwise; since the cap went in 2008, student numbers have risen by a national average of more than 20 per cent. Universities will have to work harder to demonstrate the value of higher education to students.” 

A sharp rise in university fees has also lead to student expectations of university, service and credentials to rise. An interesting consequence of this fact is the shift towards a higher demand for the campus lifestyle. Thirty-eight per cent of students cited having teaching, accommodation and social areas next to one another as a key factor for choosing their university.

Paying a higher price for education means students expect more for their money. Twenty-eight per cent of those surveyed wish to see an improvement to their universities’ catering facilities, 22 per cent wish to see social areas improved, and 21 per cent want to see better IT facilities.

With students carefully considering the decision to go to university, and expecting a higher return whilst there and beyond, it is inevitable that competition between universities will increase. Institutions will have to become more responsive to students’ needs in order to remain a desirable place for students to pursue a degree.

Peter Taylor, Strategic Development Director at Sodexo, supports this: “Though this year’s UCAS statistics show that the number of admissions to UK universities has not decreased as predicted, the findings of the 2014 Sodexo University Lifestyle Survey suggest that students are being more discerning and prudent in their choice of establishment. It will be vital for universities to take into consideration the holistic experience and environment they offer alongside their academic performance so as to ensure they appeal to students. This will be particularly important as competition increases between institutions. Those universities that know what students want will be best placed to deal with the challenges and opportunities ahead."

Key findings:

Reasons for choosing and funding a university education 

  • 76% to improve future employment opportunities (74% in 2012).
  • 62% chose to go to university to increase their earning power (36% in 2004).
  • 63% to improve their knowledge in an area of interest.
  • 48% degree was essential for chosen career path.
  • 35% of first-year students reported that university was 'the next obvious step' (compared to 42% of those in the second year or above).
  • 27% said that parental pressure was the reason for going to university.
  • 10% said £9,000 fees had led them to change their course or career and (9% from fear of high debt levels).
  • 55% were influenced by internet research when choosing a university, up from 27% in 2012.
  • 21% gleaned information on universities through social network sites up from 11% in 2008.
  • 26% took parental advice (12% in 2012).
  • 23% were swayed by teacher advice (14% in 2012).
  • 50% placed importance on successful open days.
  • 35% said transportation links to home mattered when picking an institution.
  • 33% said ability to live away from home but close enough for support (29% in 2012).
  • 38% prioritised campus universities.
  • 17% expect to take on debts in excess of £40,000 (2% in 2012).
  • In 2004 2% expected debts over £20,000 compared to the 58% of students today who expect the same level of debt.
  • 13% thought they would leave university debt-free.
  • 28% said they did not think their expected debt levels were acceptable in terms of a career investment (18% in 2012).
  • Students at new universities more likely to work during term time than those at traditional institutions, 29% versus 21%.
  • 58% of students at traditional universities receive financial support from parents compared to 38% at new institutions.
  • 19% rely on bank overdrafts to keep afloat.



  • 34% live in a flat or house rented in the private sector.
  • 48% pay more than £300 a month towards their housing.
  • 37% found their student housing via the university's website.


  • 50% stayed in to socialise or went to their friends' flats, halls or houses (42% in 2012).
  • 26% socialise off campus compared to 19% who stay at university-run bars, cafes and clubs.
  • 76% said they spend only £20 or less on going out with friends (67% in 2012) of which 20% said they spent nothing at all (14% in 2012).
  • 12% spend more than £30 a week on socialising, including smoking and drinking.
  • 47% of students in their 2nd year or higher now live quieter lives than in earlier years, compared to freshers.
  • 80% who socialised less did so because they had higher academic workloads.
  • 52% also mentioned a lack of cash as a reason for socialising less.
  • 18% said pressures of holding a part-time job had impeded their ability to get out more often.
  • 10% spend five hours a day or more socialising compared to 33% back in 2006.
  • 33% are now tee-total (26% in 2012).
  • 40% drink alcohol just once a week.

Eating habits and requirements

  • 45% spend £20 or less each week in term-time on feeding themselves.
  • 74% cook a meal from scratch using only raw ingredients at least once a week.
  • 79% make an effort to eat healthily.
  • 51% said they miss at least one meal a week.
  • 34% wanted to eat locally-sourced food compared to 51% in 2008.
  • 44% expect Fair Trade produce to be available.
  • The importance of free range produce has waned, 63% thought it important in 2008 compared to 39% in the latest survey.
  • Sustainable fish is no longer important with just 20% expecting it compared to 46% in 2008.
  • 66% name price as the key factor in choosing where to buy a meal, down from 74% in 2012.

How students spend their time and money

  • 35% spend money on books in a typical week (42% in 2012).
  • 50% spend between £1 and £20 on travel during an average week in term-time.
  • 8% said they spend more than 10 hours a week in the university library, once the main place of academic learning outside lectures and seminars.
  • 69% spend 10 hours or less a week logged on to Facebook, Twitter and similar sites.
  • 74% spend two to five hours a day in lectures, seminars or in the lab.
  • 72% spend two to five hours a day doing private study.
  • 21% dedicated some time to paid work in the average day.
  • 51% said they devote an hour or two in a typical day to sport or exercise, 45% said they do none at all
  • 23% said they spend 10 hours a week or more accessing digital learning materials (27% in 2012).
  • 54% spend one hour travelling to classes.

Personal pressures

  • 84% said they worried about securing their desired degree classification (72% in 2012 and 61% when the survey was first carried out in 2004).
  • 37% listed achieving a minimum 2.1 as their primary concern (27% in 2012).
  • 54% are worried about finding a job after graduation (56% in 2012).
  • 63% of those living at home were concerned about their job prospects.
  • 36% were concerned about feeling isolated.

University facilities and services

  • 31% said they wanted to see more lectures online.
  • 76% said they would like to see their normal lectures recorded to view at another time.
  • 24% said good Wi-Fi access was the top factor when looking at accommodation.
  • 2% listed having a student bar or café as a top priority.
  • 56% said their university’s sustainability strategies and efforts to reduce waste or cut power usage mattered to them.
  • 22% wanted improvement in social areas, such as bars, cafes and clubs run by the university.
  • 21% required better IT facilities with 13% citing it as a top priority.
  • 19% requested improved library services, 12% of students said this was the most important improvement they’d like to see.
  • 16% called for improved sports facilities, drops to 6% when asked to choose one area to improve.

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