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Q: What is the worst research among students in recent times?

  • 20 April 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the silliest higher education story I can recall.

Back in spring 2011, £9,000 tuition fees were on the horizon in England but had yet to begin.

So the insurance company LV= published one of those slightly dodgy polls that seems to have been designed primarily to win outraged headlines while gaining publicity for the company.

They suggested in a formal press release that:

  • the student population of some UK university towns would halve;
  • the proportion of younger students opting to stay at home would more than double; and
  • there would be a wave of ‘Crime and criminal damage’ as properties fell ‘vacant’ and became ‘derelict’.

Evoking the spirit of Jerry Dammers’s famous song, they predicted that parts of Newcastle, Lincoln and Sheffield would become ‘ghost towns’ within a few years. Bob Marley came to mind too in their prediction of an ‘exodus’ from ‘Swansea, Portsmouth, Stoke-on-Trent and Nottingham.’

The original source is no longer easily available online but an old screen grab is reproduced below.

The ‘research’ achieved the lurid headlines that were presumably desired. Yet the passage of time proved the predictions were nonsense. As William Whyte wrote in his 2019 paper for HEPI on the history of student accommodation, there has been more continuity than change in the decisions of students on where to live:

Although academics have pointed to an increase in the number of students staying put for a least a decade, the truth is that the proportion of students living at home has simply returned to the post-war norm, after a short anomaly during the Thatcher years. It was around 20 per cent in the early 1960s, around 10 per cent in the 1980s, and has been about 20 per cent since 2001.

This fairly static picture is true despite the fact that many policymakers in past decades, including Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher, pushed for more students to live at home. In 2014, the former Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, John Denham MP, even suggested that ‘60% of students might choose to study from home if they could.’

In the event, as another HEPI paper on the current state of the student accommodation sector published last year found, ‘at least 1.2 million students are renting housing.’ It continued, ‘Of these, 28 per cent live in university-provided accommodation; 27 per cent in private sector PBSA [purpose-built student accommodation]; and 45 per cent in off-street housing.’

someone might conceivably claim the LV= research was prescient, albeit for a different reason, given a pandemic hit hard in 2020. But in fact even the current crisis … hasn’t dented students’ desire to move away from home.

I suppose someone might conceivably claim the LV= research was prescient, albeit for a different reason, given COVID hit hard in 2020. But in fact even the current crisis, when much in-person teaching has been replaced by online provision and social lives have been curtailed, hasn’t dented students’ desire to move away from home. Indeed, UCAS has suggested young people could now be ‘less interested in staying at home to study.’ 

Despite COVID disrupting university life more than anything since the Second World War, somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of students are currently at their term-time addresses, despite Government policy tending to assume this is not the case.

The Good, the Bad and the Awful

The LV= study still often comes up at student accommodation conferences and it is mainly recalled today because it was so silly. But it also serves as a useful reminder that there are actually three sorts of student polling and we should not muddle them up:

  1. useful student polling, which provides informative data about students’ current lives, how much work they are doing, what they think of their teaching and learning and how they are feeling – there are, fortunately, plenty of examples of such good polling, including the National Student Survey (despite its imperfections), our regular Coronavirus polling and the annual Advance HE / HEPI Student Academic Experience Survey;
  2. poorer student polling, which asks people to imagine how they would behave if their options were very different to what they actually are – such as the LV= survey and also a previous poll from the National Union of Students that erroneously suggested most students would be deterred from higher education if fees reached £7,000; and
  3. awful student polling where the results are entirely unrepresentative because, for example, the respondents are self-selecting (rather than targeted) and the results are not weighted to reflect the student body. One area where the third sort of polling is, sadly, typical is students’ personal lives – to take one example, this is true of some polling on students’ illegal drug use (see the discussion here).

Later this month, we will be publishing some new polling about students’ relationships with each another, which is another area where unrepresentative datapoints tend to have been more common than representative ones. We hope some better data could help set the foundations for a more secure evidence base. So watch this space.

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