The narrative around students is all wrong. Many of the general public hold the view that students have a sweet deal, wasting their loans on shopping sprees, nights out or frivolous memberships they’ll never use. You’d be forgiven for assuming they live a life of luxury given that media representation showcases them this way. Well, what if I said that the student loan is gone once student accommodation is payed for, and the maintenance received is now also a loan and not a grant so the poorest students end up paying back the most. That’s the reality for many students up and down the UK.
Today the bulk of students face hardship while studying, not just undergraduates but right from further education with the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance and rising transport costs, many 16-18 year olds are struggling to make ends meet. In fact, the problem is worse in FE and the source of money has failed to keep pace with inflation. Working class students are more likely to be in employed work that requires them to work above the 15-hour recommended limit while studying. They’re doing this because they have no other choice.
The NUS Poverty Commission is a year’s worth of work that has resulted in a ground-breaking report on working class students and the real life effects and barriers that face them throughout post-16 education. It seeks to understand the struggles faced by many, from those undertaking an apprenticeship or further education course right through to university students. Most strikingly, we found that working class students face a ‘poverty premium’ throughout tertiary education. That put simply means poor students are penalised for being poor. Those who don’t have the money to begin with end up paying more because they have to get in more debt and can’t afford certain costs. Directly, this is having to take out a maintenance loan which before 2015 was a grant. Indirectly, could be anything from supplies for their course and transport fees through to childcare. Research submitted to the commission found a significant proportion of students experiencing periods where they could not afford food and heating.
While the wealthiest students can fall back onto Mum and Dad for help, many don’t have that luxury - in fact increasing numbers of students don’t. The government rates itself highly on their widening participation stats and ‘the fact that a record number of disadvantaged students are going to university’. But what is happening to them when they get there? Can they afford to get by once student accommodation and hidden course costs have been taken from their living loan? Yes they get can get in, but can they get on? For many it’s a no. That is why dropout rates among working-class students are rocketing, a third of part time students currently don’t make it to their second year. So many students are missing out because they cannot afford to continue with their studies.
It is clear that the system is not working. With average student expenditure routinely exceeding the income available through student support, the government must use the funding review to introduce a minimum living income for students across FE and HE. An entitlement to support that is as much grant as possible and the equivalent to a certain number of hours at living wage. Plus the means-testing system that the Student Loans Company uses to review how much a student is entitled to based on their household’s income has not changed since 2008. That means figures in real terms should be much higher than they currently are due to inflation.
Solving the financial crisis that many students find themselves in will not be answered by increasing their loans. There is much evidence to suggest that poorer, working-class people are the most debt-adverse. Increasing income this way will burden a generation and put too many off further study altogether. Reintroducing maintenance grants, bringing back an improved EMA and nursing bursaries while raising the level of the apprenticeship wage to the level of a living wage are all key to creating a fair and just education system.
The government claims to be improving social mobility and tackling poverty but so often forgets to recognise how interrelated poverty and class are. This report hasn’t just looked at the stats but taken into account the real life experiences of students, Theresa May and the Department for Education must now do the same. No student, whether an undergraduate or apprentice, should have to struggle to make ends meet while getting an education.
Shakira Martin is the president of the NUS