According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, students from the poorest 40% of families who started university last September can now look forward to collecting up to £57,000 worth of student debt by the time they graduate. News of the government’s review of HE finance, which will decide whether and how the current fees and loans system should be changed, can’t come soon enough. The current system, which burdens the poorest students with the greatest debt levels, presents a further barrier to widening participation at UK universities.
There’s lots of talk about the ‘generational gap’ at present and, when it comes to higher education funding, I can understand why today’s students may look back to what now seems like a golden age of higher education gifted to the generation before them with some sense of injustice. Generation X, those born between 1966-1980, were lucky enough to benefit from full grants to go to university – they didn’t pay any tuition fees and may well have been given around £400 a term for livings costs.
Today’s students face a much bleaker picture. With the government scrapping the last remaining maintenance grants in 2015, prospective students are faced with the rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma of either embracing the idea that they will leave university with unfathomable levels of debt, (or depending how you look at it, a graduate tax), or decide not to go to university at all.
We are starting to hear about some interesting ideas to calm the divide. The Resolution Foundation recently argued that young adults of 25 should be given a lump sum of £10,000 to help re-balance the UK’s generational divide, with older generations footing the bill through national insurance contributions from working pensioners and levies on inheritance payments over £125,000. An interesting idea, but what does this offer 18-24 year olds, and mature students, faced with the enormous cost of living to support a university education?
Likewise, while I applaud the government’s decision to amend student loan repayment thresholds to the benefit of new graduates, we’re still falling short when it comes to helping students with rising costs for essentials such as accommodation, food, gas, electricity and other household bills, additional course costs, and travel. The NUS report that many working class students still don’t have enough money to cover their daily needs, with many struggling to pay for food or heating. I know first-hand that there are students who spend every spare hour in part-time work and still struggle to make ends meet.
Of course, I appreciate the role that students’ unions, like mine, have to play in supporting and championing the needs of current students. As well as using our influence to lobby the government, MPs and our universities on hidden course fees and support with the cost of living, we also have a duty of care to fill in the gaps where we see them and support students affected by, arguably, unfair policy.
That’s why we’re proud to uphold our Free Periods campaign, offering sanitary products for free to anyone who has the joy of menstruating while at uni while the government continues to treat tampons and towels as ‘luxury items’. That’s why students of Birmingham have just voted for their first full time international officer, who will, amongst other things, provide a new platform for over 5,000 international students at Birmingham who may be paying up to four times as much as UK students for their education, with no additional support but additional living costs that might include NHS ‘health surcharges’, higher accommodation costs and police registration. That’s why we’re committed to providing advice and support services at a time when UK universities are ‘failing a generation’ by underfunding mental health care for students. That’s why we have a service to source student friendly employment opportunities, helping students to earn wages essential to supporting their education.
Birmingham is a vibrant and welcoming place for students to live, work and study, with around 65,000 attending one of the city’s five universities. I sincerely hope both this generation of students, and the next generation to come, can afford to enjoy everything this wonderful city has to offer students in the years ahead.
Ellie Keiller is president of the University of Birmingham Guild of Students
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