Addressing the heavy psychological burden of debt on students – new research from ISER in joint report with NEON UK

A new report produced by the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) with the support of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex calls for the government to shift attention away from assessing the value of courses and toward supporting those groups who are more likely not to achieve good degrees and graduate jobs. In 2018-19, there was a difference of 22.1 percentage points between the proportion of white and black students getting a 1st or 2:1 while students from free school meal (FSM) backgrounds earn on average nearly £3000 less than those from non-FSM backgrounds 5 years after graduation. As COVID-19 makes it imperative that all students who go onto HE achieve their full potential this report brings together 10 contributions from thought leaders in the UK sector and from abroad to outline a student focused approach to improving HE outcomes.

The report argues that while the Prime Minister and the government is right to highlight challenges associated with graduate unemployment/under-employment and low earnings addressing these issues by restricting entry to certain course, of to higher education overall is a one club approach to a multi-faceted problem. The ‘The Future of Student Outcomes’ report examines how to address attainment gaps between different groups, the role of further education, ‘precarity’ in the academic workforce, student funding, postgraduate participation, the role of careers services/employers and what can be learnt from innovative practice in other countries.

The report lays out ten features that could form the basis of a student focused approach to improving outcomes. They include:

• embedding a value-added approach to teaching learners from BAME and lower socio-economic groups that recognizes their strengths and culture

• addressing the heavy psychological burden of debt on students,

• investing in better financial and non-financial support for post-graduate students

• a national work experience framework for students that goes beyond the present socially skewed, patchwork approach based on unpaid internships.

As Dr Graeme Atherton, the editor of the report and the director of NEON, states:

‘As this report shows improving student outcomes means concentrating on which students need support, understanding their needs and then making the necessary changes in policy and practice to make a real difference. Vague attacks on course quality, or forcing young people away from higher education will not help the students who really need to achieve their full potential.’


Notes to editors

  1. To read the full report please go to:

  2. To register for the launch event of the report – on the 13th October from 10am – with keynote address from Emma Hardy MP, Shadow Minister for Higher Education please go to:

  3. The National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) is the professional organisation supporting those involved in widening access to higher education. NEON enables those working in widening access, at all levels and in all sectors, to affect change in their own organisations and communities, and is a membership-based organisation. It is part of London Higher which is an ‘umbrella body’ representing over 40 universities and higher education colleges in London. For more information on NEON please go to

  4. The Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) is the world-leading interdisciplinary research centre at the University of Essex and has been producing policy-relevant social and economic research for over 30 years. For more information on ISER please go to

  5. For further information or to arrange an interview with Dr Graeme Atherton please contact Maria-Anna Petrou on


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