Young people turn away from higher education to fund basic needs

Published on
14 August 2023

As the cost-of-living crisis continues, more than a quarter of a million young people are estimated to have moved away from going into higher education over the past two years, according to Co-op and Barnardo’s research.

  • More than a third (35%) of young people are struggling to feed themselves owing to financial issues 

  • More than a fifth (22%) of young people are focused on getting a job that will help them to make ‘quick and easy’ money 

  • Interest in applying to apprenticeships rose by 4% since 2021: an estimated half a million young people 

  • Co-op and Barnardo’s are calling on the Government to amend child benefit regulations, where parents lose out if their teenagers choose apprenticeships over academic alternatives  

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 £45k1, the tracker shows that 250,000 fewer young people aspire to go into higher education in 2023 when compared with two years ago. 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. 

Corrine, 24, Youth Advisory Group Leader from Glasgow, said: “Children and young people are not getting equal chances due to the cost-of-living crisis. We want them to have fairer chances and this gap is getting wider due to the ongoing challenges, which is then leading to an impact on their mental health. Children are going hungry, especially throughout the holiday period and this creates a financial burden on parents. The toughest challenges this generation faces are figuring out who they are, peer pressure and the influence of social media. 

“Being a part of the Youth Advisory Group, I would like to ensure that we are listened to and visually see the impact our group is having on decisions and projects. By talking first hand to the issues young people are facing, with lived experience, this will be valuable for us to help shape positive futures for young people.” 

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.” 

To support education and skills, Co-op's apprentice levy scheme has now seen £14 million pledged by 42 organisations towards Co-op Levy Share targets, supporting more than 1,000 apprenticeships, across 30 different occupations opening up life chances for many people who had not had that opportunity or access previously.  

‘The Youth Opportunity Tracker’ and Co-op’s partnership with Barnardo’s builds on Co-op’s ongoing work with young people including through its youth-led programmes, Co-op’s apprentice levy scheme, its work with the Peer Action Collective (PAC), and Co-op Academies Trust.   

To find out more and ways to help fundraise, visit or to learn more about apprenticeships at the Co-op, please visit:


  1. Student Loan Statistic, House of Commons Library – 4th July 2023
  2. A drop from 56% in 2021 to 54% in 2023 based on ONS figure for UK 10-25 year olds: 12,699,344

Notes to editors  

For more information, contact: 

Co-op: [email protected] 

Barnardo’s: [email protected] 

About the research  

ICM interviewed a nationally representative sample of 5,001 10–25-year-olds across the UK via an online survey between 17 March and 31 March 2023. Participants aged 10–15 (and some aged 16–17) were recruited through their parents; both participants and parents gave their consent to take part in the survey. Unless otherwise stated, all differences between demographic groups are statistically significant. Any differences which are labelled significant have been tested at the 95 per cent confidence level. The research was conducted in accordance with ISO 20252 and ISO 27001, the international standards for market research and information security management.  

* Food support refers to food banks, community kitchens and community fridges 

** ‘Differences between 2021 and 2023 surveys show the net increase over time. This shows the percentage increase between 2021 and 2023 as a proportion of those who answered this way in 2021, rather than the absolute percentage point difference. For example, a shift from 50% to 52% is a 2 percentage point increase in absolute terms, while the net increase is 4% as a proportion of those who answered this way in the first instance.’  

*** This is similar to the 500,000 figure in that it’s 2 percentage point decrease, calculated using ONS figures (2% of 12,699,344 is 253,986 - This has been checked and approved with ICM.) We were advised to caveat that this is an estimate as the population figures will have slightly changed from 2021 to 2023. 

About Co-op

Co-op is one of the world’s largest consumer co-operatives with interests across food, funerals, insurance and legal services. Owned by millions of UK consumers, the Co-op operates over 2,500 food stores, over 800 funeral homes and provides products to over 5,000 other stores, including those run by independent co-operative societies and through its wholesale business, Nisa Retail Limited. 

Employing almost 60,000 people, the Co-op has an annual turnover of over £11billion and is a recognised leader for its social goals and community-led programmes. The Co-op exists to meet members’ needs and stand up for the things they believe in.  

Over the last two years Co-op has invested in extensive research including Ghosted Generation 2021 and Unfairy Tales 2022 to understand the attitudes, life chances and aspirations of young people. 

About Barnardo’s

Last year Barnardo’s provided essential support to over 357,000 children, young people, parents and carers through more than 790 services. We provide vital support to the children and families who need us most, to help with a range of issues including mental health, child sexual abuse and children in care. We listen to children and young people and work to bring about positive change so that they can have a brighter future. Visit to find out more.