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The New Realists: students prioritise financial security (59%) over wealth (13%) or fame (9%)

  • 17 September 2019

A new in-depth study of the UK student population shows students are realistic about the challenges they face and resourceful in how they navigate them to achieve the lives they want.

The findings include:

  • 68% of students say they will face more challenges than their parents;
  • loneliness and mental health are growing issues, with one-in-four students ‘often’ (22%) or ‘always’ (4%) lonely; and
  • 58% of first-year students cite peer-to-peer sources of information as the most accurate, and just 16% say prospectuses are.

Students believe it is harder to buy property (90%) or find a job (78%) for their generation, and that they face more barriers to success than their parents did (68%). Moreover, 59% disagree with the idea that there is less chaos and risk in the world than 20 years ago.

Students have realistic and mature goals for what they want out of life: 62% want to find a job they are passionate about and 59% seek financial stability, compared with 19% who prioritise travelling, 13% who want to be wealthy and 13% who want to achieve a senior position in their chosen field.

Higher education is seen as a way to insure against future instability, but also as a period of transition: 69% say they believe going to university is the only way to get the life they want. Becoming an independent adult is also crucial to students’ views of a successful university experience (49%), demonstrating a desire to stand on their own two feet.

Nick Hillman, HEPI said

Over a million undergraduates, including hundreds of thousands of freshers, are on the cusp of the new academic year. They are more diverse than ever before. But this new research shows the caricature of students as lazy, irresponsible and thin-skinned is completely wrong.

Students want to prepare themselves for the changing world. They know the world is a chaotic place and they see education as an insurance policy against the vagaries of life, and as a route to a fulfilling career and a secure home.

Today’s students don’t generally shy away from asking for help when they need it. Often, the support they receive is first class. But we still need to do more to tell applicants what higher education is really like, to tackle the epidemic of loneliness and to experiment with further initiatives to encourage integration.

Richard Smith, CEO Unite Students commented on the findings: 

Students today recognise that they are growing up in a world of unpredictable and challenging change. As a result, they value security and stability more highly than one might expect – and crucially, they want to achieve this on their own terms. 

For navigating these changes, and for support in day-to-day life, students are supplementing traditional sources of university support with their peer networks and friendship groups to help through the transition through university and into adulthood. This generation of students have proven themselves to be a realistic and resilient group, that create solutions that are right for them.


Max Guiton, a Philosophy student involved in the research, said:

One of the things that was so important to me about going to University was the opportunity to be responsible for myself for the first time and really gain independence. While it’s obviously daunting at first, having people in the same boat all around you really helps and my university was well equipped to answer any questions.

University for me seemed like an obvious choice to help me transition from school to a job that I really feel passionate about. My generation knows we have our work cut out for us, but I do think that my time at university will give me the tools I need to help me achieve security and happiness in my future. That’s what is really important to me right now.

In 2019, 17% of students report having a mental health condition (up from 12% in 2016). One in four (26%) students say they often or always feel lonely.

However, students appear to take a pragmatic approach to mental health. Those with a mental health condition are more likely to think it’s a part of who they are (47%) than a problem to solve (37%). But almost half still feel that there is a stigma attached (46%).

Trust and confidence in their university are important for students when it comes to accessing support: 23% have used university support services, and when they have done, students rate the services positively (81%). However, 26% of students say they haven’t used support for reasons of confidence, anxiety, because they didn’t want the university to know or because they didn’t think the service was for them.

Only around half (53%) of students with a mental health condition have told their university.

Friendship groups tend to shrink between school and university. 20% of applicants say they have a big circle of friends compared to 15% of first year students. This has a direct impact on wellbeing, 77% students with smaller friendship groups are satisfied with their life, compared with 89% who have large friendship groups.

Notes to editors

  1. The report with full data set and supporting audio recordings of student conversations are at: www.unite-group.co.uk/campaign/new-realists-report.
  2. Students interviewed for this report are available for interviews. Nick Hillman, HEPI and Jenny Shaw, Unite Students are also available for further comment.
  3. Unite Students is the UK’s largest manager and developer of purpose-built student accommodation serving the country’s world-leading higher education sector. We currently provide homes for almost 50,000 students in c.130 properties across 22 leading university towns and cities in England and Scotland. Unite also has a strong development pipeline, which will deliver more than 6,000 beds in the next three years.
  4. The Higher Education Policy Institute (www.hepi.ac.uk) was established in 2002 to shape the higher education policy debate with evidence. It is the United Kingdom’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded in part by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate.

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