There is a stereotype of students and student living that pervades the populous of United Kingdom, and much of the developed world. We see it every day in culture; TV shows such as Fresh Meat or in everyday life, from comments from permanent residents of student cities. Even in my capacity as president of a students' union in an incredibly deprived city, this is a view I've heard espoused in many university meetings.
"Students have lots of money to spend, especially on perishable things such as alcohol, socialising and shopping". Students spend all or most of their student loan on "guitars and beer", and then go to the bank of 'Mummy and Daddy' to be bailed out. Often, it not as overt as those quotes above, but the underlying mentality is remarkably similar, if you scratch beneath the surface.
Recently, political discourse has been centred around the 'cost of living crisis' that the families of the United Kingdom are suffering. With the cost of energy bills, food and transport continually rising, and wages stagnating, the hard-working families up and down the country are struggling to make ends meet. Politicians of all major parties are looking to address this, not least with Ed Miliband's pledge at the last Labour Party Conference to freeze energy bills for two years.
The problem around this political conversation is that - as has happened so often nationally and locally - students are not a part of the conversation. This is a massive problem. There are issues specific to the UK's diverse population of part time, full time, mature, post graduate students in higher and further education. The difference between the perception of student life and reality is having real impact, and is leading to a problem that will at some point reach a breaking point.
Headline data conducted by NUS (National Union of Students) shows that there is a £7,600 gap between income and expenditure for a full time undergraduate student studying a 39 week academic year, with typical income from government grants and loans. This is increasing yearly.
Even in Hull, where we have a notoriously low cost of living, and a higher number of students from lower socio-economic background than the sector average, we are still having major issues. The number of students using our Students' Union Advice Centre for money issues has spiked, and the number of food parcels we hand out has also increased dramatically.
Students are living in poverty, and it is not even on the radar on the political agenda.
There are two key issues here; firstly, the general cost of living is going up, whilst the amount of loan and grants that students are receiving are remaining entirely still. For those lucky enough to be able to have parents to lean upon in these tough times (whose incomes are also likely to be squeezed), this is an unfortunate situation. For those not able to ask others to provide with their generosity, it is untenable.
The second issue is that the political and social discourse (and funding models originally set up) does not encompass all - or even the majority - of our students. There is not currently a funding model for Postgraduate students (although movement is being made), and whilst part time students are now able to access student loans as of last year, their numbers have dropped significantly. There are bigger issues here than Student Loans Company, although no one is denying the way the support is divided and then delivered, leaves much to be desired.
There is a cost of living crisis for students in United Kingdom. Not just for undergraduate 18 year olds, and not just those who may have came to University for the first time, but everyone who relys on student finance, grants and bursaries and even the generosity of others.