Changes to student finance could make it easier to manage the daily costs of higher education.
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The 2015 budget shocker wasn't the shotgun end to Grants money ring-fenced for poorer applicants, but that George Osborne might actually have delivered what many students want.
The sums on student finance don't stack up against living costs - yet many arrive at uni unprepared for the hardship of making ends meet without savings, scrimping and family support. "Student Loan is not enough to get by for people like me whose course is so demanding that you cannot get a job," one recipient told Save the Student. "I also get a bursary ... There are still times where I must cut back to one meal a day."
Student poverty isn't new. It's not even rare. But what's less reported is how divisive Grants are among students who otherwise are in the same boat, yet who see income-assessed funding as unfair, unrealistic and open to abuse.
"I have a friend who got loads of grants and was quite well off for his first year because his dad had a low income," comments second-year Sarah, while, "my maintenance loan will not cover my rent for next year and I am not allowed to have a job whilst at uni." Another student adds: "Since when did it become an advantage to have divorced parents?"
With two-thirds of students saying they struggle to make ends meet on the current Maintenance Loan, many told Save the Student they'd prefer equal payouts for all, to see funding brought in line with living costs, and to be assessed independently of parents' income ("you are the one going to uni not them, so why should you get less just because they have good jobs?").
This shift in mentality among the current cohort, away from the politics of free education and ethics of subsidising poorer students, makes sense when many experience equal hardship, but unequal assistance. While new student finance rules are less concerned with low income before university, they could go some way to relieving hardship for more while they're there.
Jill, a second-year student in Yorkshire:
"We've had to do a lot of moving money around borrowing/lending from each other to help. Student accommodation is way too expensive and doesn't take into consideration student finance. I got a £3,500 loan in the first year and the university accommodation I was offered cost £5,123 ..."
The National Student Money Survey pegs monthly living costs in the region of £745. Even on conservative estimates that's £265 short of the average loan payout. For those starting university in 2016, there'll be more money in the pot (some of it still income-assessed), and more cash to cover basic living costs. With almost 50% of students saying money worries affected their studies, access to extra cash could make a significant difference.
Student loans are - all things considered - on far better terms than commercial loans. They provide a means to a degree that you'll only pay back if employers recognise the costs of getting qualified, through higher graduate salaries. For the majority, that may result in never paying back the full loan amount. Either way, there's a significant gap between what students expect to live on, and what money they have to cover those costs. Most rely on loans and their parents; most find that's not enough. There's a scramble to get part-time jobs in an already overcrowded market. The focus is on plugging the leaks once the ship has already set sail, when the reality is you're gonna need a bigger float - yet more than half the students we talked to had less than £500 in savings.
With fees already paid on tick, it's time the message about preparing for, and managing, daily costs gets more attention. Extra loan money may help make that manageable - though it's unlikely to be enough on its own, especially after sky-high student rents are factored in. Meanwhile, the benefits of borrowing more to cover living costs will be stifled if the repayment threshold doesn't rise in line with any mooted rise in fees, let alone inflation.
The current set-up goes easiest on those at the extremes - those from the lowest or highest income backgrounds while, across the board, there's increasingly disparity. Removing Grants raises as many questions as it answers, but is more in tune with daily student hardship than anything else on offer.