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Student Finances - What Can Be Done to Help Students Prepare for University?

In years to come, ifs University College hopes that positive financial news arising from its young persons money index will take its own place in the yearly news cycle, with freshers' guides not needing to include financial advice.

If you are a regular follower of the news cycle throughout the year, you'll be aware of - and be expecting - familiar types of story to appear as one month rolls into the next. After the inevitable non-stories of "silly season" in August and just before the Christmas season, the papers are usually awash with "starting university" pieces and "fresher guides" by mid to late September.

Working for a financial education charity which helps teenagers to manage their money, it is always interesting to read these fresher guides, for they contain information on nearly every aspect of university life: how to develop your culinary skills, how to register with local healthcare providers and even how to make friends by joining societies. Yet inevitably the financial advice provided for soon-to-be students is always lacking. Beyond the usual platitudes of "make sure to plan a budget" and "how to keep track of monthly outgoings", little is ever said about how students should practically take control of their personal finances.

This year, according to figures from university admissions service UCAS, a record 426,000 students are now starting undergraduate courses throughout the UK, the majority of whom will be, for the first time, taking independent and life-changing financial decisions, such as taking on student loans, paying rent and using new forms of financial products. Despite this, ifs University College in its Young Persons' Money Index has found that as many as 70 per cent will be starting university without ever having a lesson on personal finance or money management in school or college, meaning that many are not equipped to take these financial decisions. Among girls, who make up the majority of university intakes every year, an even more worrying picture emerges, where 74 per cent will have never received any formal financial education. You can easily see therefore that for students leaving university facing the prospect of an average £44,000 worth of debts, a few lines on planning a budget or monitoring outgoings is woefully neglectful.

The problems of this neglect are all around us. From the growing numbers of short-term loan companies on the high street to increased levels of stress among undergraduates, it is indeed no surprise that organisations such as Citizens Advice have seen a rapid rise in young people reporting debt issues.

So what can be done to combat these issues? ifs University College has long argued that better provision for financial education is the most obvious starting point. Having worked with hundreds of thousands of students over the past 10 years, it's clear that there is a hunger among young people to learn more about how money works and how to make it work for them. There is no point telling someone they should budget if they don't know how to in the first place, or indeed what a budget even is. Nor indeed is it worthwhile students signing up for new bank accounts or lines of credit, if they are not appropriate or understood. To this end, some positive steps have now been taken. From September 2014 schools following the National Curriculum are now required to teach financial capability through Citizenship and Maths, while other organisations are stepping in to fill the gap. While questions remain as to the effectiveness of this approach, it is at least encouraging that the problem has been identified.

But what of those students already at university? While Universities themselves are rapidly enhancing their student services and pastoral care to include money management, more evidently needs to be done. Questions remain about how effective these programmes are and whether students are even aware of them. The fact remains that there is no overall policy for universities to help enhance their students' financial capability and perhaps this is the next area the government should consider looking at. Similarly, in the workplace benefits field, employers are realising that a workforce free from stress and money worries is a productive workforce and are investing in their own financial education programmes. A more cohesive approach to financial education with everyone taking responsibility for the provision of financial education will ultimately lead to more positive outcomes.

In years to come, ifs University College hopes that positive financial news arising from its young persons money index will take its own place in the yearly news cycle, with freshers' guides not needing to include financial advice.

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