As the UK sits on the verge of a major change in the financing of both universities and students, this study seeks to capture and analyse the attitudes to money, borrowing and debt among contemporary young undergraduates. It reports findings from a qualitative study of 62 individuals in the second term of their first year at university, these being representatively sampled from volunteers across gender, social class, ethnicity and subject discipline. The semi-structured interview data was subjected to thematic analysis and this was used to derive a tentative typology of debt attitudes ranging from ‘debt-positive’ to ‘debt-angry’.
The findings of this study suggest that student attitudes are more complex than assumed in some previous research and journalistic commentary, especially with respect to social class. Counterintuitively, many students from lower social class backgrounds show a positivity about debt as a means of enabling them to access higher level careers; this is consistent with admissions data following the 2006 increase in tuition fees and student indebtedness. More generally, the mainstream of student attitudes appears to fall between the ‘debt-savvy’ and ‘debt-resigned’ types, with students being relatively well-informed about repayment terms and accepting large-scale indebtedness as ‘normal’ with most students being ‘in the same boat’. The implications of these findings, the limitations of the study and future opportunities for research are discussed.