Students need reform to maintenance funding now

Student loans and tuition fees is a topic that’s never far from the media.

In fact, ever since the announcement to “triple tuition fees” back in 2010, fees and loans have been obsessed over by everyone – commentators, parents, institutions, the Labour Party and both Theresa May and Phillip Augar. It was the focus of the Commons’ education questions just the other day.

But the debate over maintenance – the amount that we might need to make available to students to enable them to study – has comparatively been deathly quiet. So the return of the nursing bursary (and its extension to other health professions) – a great relief to many who have suffered financial hardship just to study – is fascinating. Given this major u-turn and the election’s promise to respond to Augar, the question is whether anyone has a proper grasp on what it is students actually need.

We won’t stand a loan

Right now our English student finance system fails students, leaving many in financial hardship. Even if we discount the overall level of support (which in most cases is now laughably inadequate), students who are in receipt of maintenance loans get three termly instalments paid to them. But many universities don’t work on this pattern – operating instead on a semester-based (two long terms of around 12 weeks) timetable, resulting in several students having to do a half a year’s worth of study, with only a third of their student maintenance to support them.

Similarly, those students who do study year-round are not given a maintenance loan to reflect this additional time studying throughout the year.

Both the timing and the amount means that students put full-time work on top of full-time study, beg for support by family members (for those lucky enough to have this option), or use commercial loans to get through university. Commercial debt on top of loan debt is becoming the norm for a lot of students as a way of coping with the prices they face to live and study on top of tuition fees. And for those with children or dependents, loans simply are not enough to live on – so missing lectures to attend work becomes a must.

Peter and Paul

The very idea of maintenance loans is to enable students to get an education and overcome financial barriers – not to take away from that education and create poverty. And the timing issues aren’t just about installments. Many don’t receive their first maintenance payment until October, long after the academic year has started – which is a big disadvantage as the expectation is to pay everything upfront, including accommodation costs.

Childcare providers not only require advance payments too, but also usually demand a security deposit, (a luxury that the SLC does not afford claimants). A meeting between students and the SLC highlighted the catch twenty two – do you pay the nursery fees or travel expenses to get to your lectures first?

Student accommodation

The assumption that a maintenance loan covers all is far from the truth for many students who often find themselves short on rent and unable to spend money on other everyday essentials. With many university accommodation options now priced at well over £100 per week, and average annual rent prices well over £6,500, students are treated like cash cows in many universities’ attempts to diversify income streams.

Students are being exploited as low-cost accommodation options are on the decline with affordable accommodation being turned into expensive luxury halls. It comes to something when university accommodation now costs considerably more than the private housing sector.

Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore, has commented that the “responsibility for decent, fair and affordable student accommodation cannot fall through the cracks”, but where does this responsibility lie? Maintenance loans are not fit for purpose as they do not always cover the rising cost of living or increasing rent prices. But something has to give. Loans have to increase or costs have to be controlled. Over to you, Chris. We need an update on that roundtable.

Mental health

There are impacts to all of this. Financial stress is closely linked to poor mental health. The reality is that for many students they’re existing on the fringes of financial affordability: skipping meals; choosing between studying or working a shift in often minimum wage roles and oppressive zero hour contracts, all the time racking up debt and not getting the education they deserve, with many often deciding that the viability of studying any longer isn’t for them.

The struggle for a student to stay the entire length of their degree in these conditions is very real and for some creates the dilemma of whether to continue to graduation or drop out and take a full time job. It’s rich for ministers to tell universities to “bear down” on non-continuation rates when maintenance loans are so inadequate.

We often talk about the latest mental health initiatives and Student Minds’ charter promotes a “whole university approach” to rising mental health issues among students. What we are missing is supporting students financially which can help alleviate some issues and problems for students. Add to that the financial struggles of students becoming a barrier to getting involved in university life, and no wonder so many students feel lonely and unprepared for the job market.

Common-sense

As the Government considers its response to the Augar Review, a big debate will be about whether some or all of the money in a loan is converted into a grant. But that debate misses much of the point. It also needs to review “how” it’s doing student maintenance, ensuring the system is designed to meet the broadest needs of students.

The current model for payments is not fit for purpose and needs to be addressed. London weighting needs a look. The means/parental test is broken. We really do need a national system that enables students to learn and take part properly in student life. And whilst the “long grass” wait for a response to Augar might suit university finance directors, it’s a disaster for students.

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