By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online Magazine
Forget Pot Noodles and old coats from Oxfam. As students settle into Freshers' Week the image of impoverished undergraduates is an out-of-date myth, suggest surveys of student consumer spending.
A modern-day Neil would own £7,000 worth of equipment
It's no secret that students are in greater debt than ever before, but as a new academic year begins many are being packed off to university with an Aladdin's Cave of expensive possessions.
According to Endsleigh, a specialist insurance company for students, those starting university this term will typically bring consumer goods worth between £3,000 and £7,000.
Instead of a rusty bike and a few old posters, the average student will bring a laptop, sound system, television, DVD, personal organiser and mobile phone.
About a fifth of them are likely to be driving their own cars - with some universities having an even higher proportion of student drivers.
A recent survey by Marks and Spencer also highlighted this pattern, saying students wouldn't be starting university with "a tin opener and a head full of academic dreams, but with kit worthy of any hi-tech modern house, worth up to £6,370".
Dig the digs
"Because their parents are paying for them, or students themselves are funding their education, they want more," says Simon Thompson of the website Accommodation for Students.
New halls of residence are run by private contractors, some with broadband in the room, widescreen TVs, en suite bathrooms, on-site health clubs, swimming pools, swipe-card entry and 24-hour surveillance.
This is a huge change from a generation ago, when students were caricatured in The Young Ones as living in cash-strapped frugality, with bare cupboards and second-hand clothes.
Students spend £940m on drinks and £480m on cigarettes each year
Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, says that university is now a "consumer experience" for many young people.
"Students might not be rich, but they are comparatively better-off than students once were - and all the talk about debt and fees masks this. They have an expectation of a level of support from their parents that would have been unthinkable in the 1970s," says Professor Furedi.
He also says students who are steeped in this affluent, consumer-culture can cause problems for their lecturers. Students can think the "customer is always right", he says.
But it's not all easy living for students, he says. There is a greater polarisation in wealth than before, with some undergraduates facing great financial hardship.
The National Union of Students (NUS) emphasises this financial pressure, and says that after paying their rent, students are living on an income below the job-seekers' allowance.
Student room at Liverpool John Moores University, 2001
Different surveys give very different impressions of student finances.
The NUS says students outside London are expected to live on £23 to £43 per week after rent, which it says is below the "subsistence level". This stark picture is compounded by the level of graduate debt, which has climbed steeply to an average of more than £12,000.
"The image of a student as portrayed in The Young Ones is out of date," says NUS vice president, welfare, Helen Symons.
"This is because the students depicted were much better off than students of today. In the early 80s they received maintenance grants, housing benefits, travel costs and even unemployment benefits during Christmas and Easter vacations."
Thirst for knowledge
But a survey from the Royal Bank of Scotland says students are still finding cash to enjoy themselves - spending an average of £121 per week after rent and collectively blowing £18m per week on alcohol alone.
The biggest three expenditures were rent, alcohol and food, ahead of clothes, going out, cigarettes, eating out, phones and books and course materials.
This kind of energetic spending is not going to be covered by the government-backed student loans - and the funding gap is being met by extra borrowing, both from families and from banks or credit cards.
Student culture: Is it i-Pods or beans on toast?
The Consumer Credit Counselling Service says its advisers have had cases where students have run up debts of £10,000 on credit cards.
The NUS also says that, rather than being spoiled, students are paying their own way as never before. They now have jobs as a matter of course, with 58% holding down extra-curricular work commitments during term-time.
Big debt, big spenders
If they're spending on laptops and clothes, it's money they have worked hard to earn, says the students' union.
Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University, believes that when trying to measure changes in how students live it's important to look at the bigger picture of how the rest of society has changed.
"Universities are microcosms of society outside," he says. So students, along with everyone else, are likely to spend more, borrow more and work longer hours to meet the repayments.
But he says that although students are sharing the upward trend of affluence, many are still facing a genuine shortage of cash. They might like going out for the night - but baked beans are still on the menu.
Add your comments to this story using the form below:
From my experience students at my university are generally quite well off, wear good clothes, have gadgets coming out of their ears and some even drive BMWs! Obviously this doesn't ring true for everyone, but the days of the baked beans on toast eating student are over.
Im a fresher who has just started uni and yeah, I admit to owning a laptop and a mobile phone. But why oh why is it that students today are always seen as "getting it easy"? Most students who own computers etc had them before they went to university. I know my laptop was a joint birthday/ Xmas gift, as was my tv, yet because we own these things people assume we spent our student loan on them! I am sick to death of the older generation complaining about how easy everything is for us. I'm going to leave universty with £16,000 debt, I don't think thats "getting it easy".
Natalie Hornshaw, Hull UK
I have been working for a Students' Union for the past six years, in that short time I have seen the expenditure and expectations of the students rise to an all time high. I know many students who are financially better off than myself on a day-to-day basis. The money they spend on going out, clothes, latest technologies, new cars etc is mind-boggling. A lot of these students do get into horrendous debt but don't seem to be particularly concerned about it in the short term.
Dawn Williamson, UK
I first went to university in 1980, when students were protesting about nuclear arms and apartheid. When I returned to university in 1999 they were griping about the poor cellphone coverage and the threat of increased parking charges.
Carl , UK
As a student going into her second year, I resent the implication that students are more extravagant and less cost conscious then those in the past. Students, like all society, have to make a choice, and many, such as myself, choose to have a reasonable living standard. I have worked all summer, in order to be able to pay the rent on a house that is actually vaguely liveable (believe me, there are many that aren't), and so I do not feel guilty about going out or buying clothes and eatable foods. I am by no means extravagant, and I face a ridiculous level of debt when I leave university anyway. Why should I stop myself from enjoying my last years free of responsibility?
Emma Dalby Bowler, England
Yes, I had a laptop and I was out four or five nights a week but I consistently worked a 20 hour week term-time and full time during vacation to complete a five-year course with no financial parental support. This is no indication of personal wealth, I was from a council estate. Student wealth should not be measured by what students have but who paid for it and with what means.
The truth of most courses today is that the majority of students will require a laptop in order to complete coursework (often due to a lack of provision of high-quality high-availabilty IT services in many universities). "Everyone" has a mobile phone these days, and since a 'rusty bike' will generally get stolen within three months of starting the course, you may as well get a car.
So it perhaps should not come as a surprise that students - far from having lots of surplus income to spend on luxuries - are merely (wisely) investing in the devices required for them to reach their potential in our currently overcrowded further education market.
Students keep spending because their debts are so large that another £100 here or there on the odd DVD or mobile phone psychologically shouldn't make a difference. It's the best time of their lives so they may as well live it up.
Beth , UK
We have just been through freshers' week and I am astounded by the number of designer labels - they dress better than the staff can afford to! However as with previous years I expect the local pubs and restaurants to have quitened down substantially by the end of Oct when they have spent all their money AGAIN! Just like I did!
It's all very well living the "consumer experience" but downing all their parents savings at the pub doesn't help them study, nor appreciate the value of money. Too many "students" are coasting through degree courses expecting a high paid job waiting for them at the end, which is not the case. By the time they're out of university and have to find a home and a job to pay off the 5 figure sum they squandered, they'll be used to a lifestyle they can no longer afford.
Rob Grant, England
This does not surprise me. Yes, increased fees play a big part in the current debt problems, but I do think that the role of students to manage their budgets responsibly has been missed in the debate. It would help if secondary school pupils received lessons on budgeting and other finance issues. I didn't even know what an overdraft was before I went to university!
Susan, Crawley, UK
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