Young people turn away from higher education to fund basic needs

16th August 2023

Young people are turning away from higher education as the cost-of-living crisis prompts a shift in financially prioritising basic needs, a major study by the Co-op and children’s charity Barnardo’s has found.

One of the largest studies of its kind, ‘Youth Opportunities Tracker: Fairer Futures’, was commissioned as part of a wider partnership between the two organisations, as they seek to raise £5m to support 750,000 young people to access basic needs, like food, improve their mental wellbeing and create better opportunities for their future.

The study looked at the experiences, life chances and aspirations of over 5,000 10–25-year-olds across the UK, and how they have changed since 2021. Despite the Government’s ambitions to improve opportunities and outcomes through its Levelling Up agenda, the study uncovered the stark impact that the rising cost-of-living is having on young people’s access to food, mental wellbeing, and opportunities for the future.

As recent figures estimate average student debt for those currently completing a course will top £45k[1], the tracker shows that 250,000** fewer young people aspire to go into higher education in 2023 when compared with two years ago[2]. By contrast, the study revealed a stronger interest in apprenticeships, rising from 40% to 44% of respondents over the past two years – an estimated 500,000** people2. However, there is currently no requirement for apprentice schemes to pay the national living wage, and many are looking to earn ‘quick and easy’ money, as more than a fifth (22%) are focused on getting a job to help with financial pressures.

Financial issues are also causing young people to struggle to afford to feed themselves. More than a third (35%) said their family have had issues paying for or accessing food, with the same number having used food support* over the past six months. Almost a quarter (23%) have started the day without a meal in the past six months due to the cost-of-living pressures impacting day-to-day life.

For many, the outlook remains bleak: with a quarter (24%) thinking it’s unlikely they will have enough money to cover basic needs in the future.

In an effort to create a fairer world, Co-op has partnered with Barnardo’s to bring communities together to raise £5m to support 750,000 young people who are increasingly finding they need to prioritise their immediate needs at the expense of their long-term goals.

Together, Co-op and Barnardo’s are ensuring that young people’s voices are heard by establishing a Youth Advisory Group, made up of 12 young people aged 16-25 who will advise on all aspects of the partnership.

Rebecca Birkbeck, Director of Community and Shared Value at the Co-op said “The cost-of-living has had a seismic impact on young people, with many having to prioritise basic needs over long-term career goals and aspirations. We’re seeing that many people are unable to make the financial compromises required to set themselves up for future success. Simply put, this isn’t fair.”

“Apprenticeships are a key means by which we can promote social mobility, and business can play an important role in ensuring everyone has an equal chance to fulfil their potential, no matter who they are or where they are from.”

“Whilst we see first-hand the positive impact apprenticeships have on young careers at Co-op, it’s not fair that those from poorer backgrounds feel their options for further education are being limited due to the cost-of-living. That’s why we’ve partnered with Barnardo’s to raise £5m to support 750,000 young people in communities across the UK, working with young people to identify the problems they face and co-create solutions. But the solutions go beyond just us.”

“We are calling on the Government to amend the child benefit regulations so 16–19-year-olds who choose to take an apprenticeship can continue to receive child benefit, for those who have chosen a work-based training route, which may dissuade those from a lower socio-economic background. Businesses can play a part in that as well, offering and promoting apprentice schemes that pay the national living wage, helping create a fairer future for young people.”

Lynn Perry MBE, Chief Executive at Barnardo’s said: “A generation of young people have been disadvantaged as a result of the covid pandemic, and the impact has been greatest for those growing up in poorer households. That’s why we’re working with the Co-op to support young people to access basic needs like food, manage their mental wellbeing, and connect with opportunities for their future.”

“Covid widened the gap between what the most and least disadvantaged pupils in the UK achieve in school, and we must not let the cost-of-living crisis be a further barrier to young people pursuing their ambitions – whether that’s higher education or a work-based option.”

“Apprenticeships can be a brilliant experience for young people – combining academic learning with practical work placements. But at a time when many young people live with their parents or carers well into their 20s, it’s deeply unfair that taking on an apprenticeship at 16 means your family faces a financial penalty. The Government must look again at this policy and make sure young people don’t have to make choices based on fear that their family will lose essential support.”