Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It’s easy to raise an eyebrow when an organisation publishes a report and self-declares it as “landmark”.

But one of the arguments you can make in support of the Higher Education Policy Institute’s Minimum Income Standard for Students work (developed by the Centre for Research in Social Policy (CRSP) at Loughborough) having such a label is because of the way in which it moves the debate on – from calling for an increase to maintenance to establishing what students actually need to have their basic needs met.

The methodology is not dissimilar to that used in the calculation of the Living Wage – a calculation that is, in theory, about to become more important in public policy insofar as Labour have committed to shifting toward that calculation for the statutory minimum wage, shifting from a long-term target to reach an arbitrary 66 per cent of median earnings by 2024, and towards instead towards what people need to get by on in the process.

It’s no good calling for an inflationary increase to maintenance loans if we’re not sure whether the amount we’re increasing from is enough. And on the evidence of the hauntingly modest basket of goods, services and costs that students call for in the pull quotes in HEPI’s report, it manifestly isn’t.

Establishing a minimum income floor for students, however that income is obtained, ought to be a central organising principle for anytone engaged in lobbying in this area – because not only is doing so morally sound, it supports the “school uniform” principle of everyone being in the same boat (and having what we used to call “equal opportunities” to succeed) once they get in. It’s a profoundly educational principle.

As a stand-alone piece of work, the report suffers from many of the compromises and problems involved in the Living Wage work – a universal number will never capture the diversity of costs, benefits, experiences and needs. But it does at least establish a symbolic principle of focussing on need, that as I’ve pointed out here before, appears never to have been meaningfully considered by the Westminster government in living memory.

As such, it highlights a real gap that ought to cause at least some early and blunt fixes, and a long-term review of the whole system, by Labour, on the assumption that it’s about to assume office.

It’s what happens then – any review’s parameters and focus areas – that really matters next.

Needs not wants

If we look at the three most recent quasi-autonomous attempts to reform at least the headline amounts of student maintenance a student should be able to access, we see three subtly different approaches – that nevertheless, all share a big flaw.

The otherwise widely respected Diamond review in Wales was light on assessing need, and instead avoiding having to undertake the exercise by simply declaring that the National Living Wage would be sufficient – asserting that a notional 37.5 hours per week over a notional 30 week period would be fine, and retaining the “plucked from the air” adjustments of 25 per cent more for a student away from home in London, and 15 per cent less for students living at home.

That’s despite the fact that 1 ECTS credit = 20 study hours – and so over 30 weeks, 37.5 is 75 hours short.

The Westminster government’s Augar review also avoided considering the detail it didn’t bother to commission on student costs – instead taking 5 year old data in the Student Income and Expenditure Survey, uprating it for inflation and then declaring that the Welsh approach would be just fine. Not that the government even bothered to respond to that whole chapter.

Scotland’s run at this in 2017 also had a go at symbolically setting what ought to be a minimum student income, although the good news was that the wage to anchor it to was chosen as the Scottish Government’s Living Wage – the higher one calculated by the Resolution Foundation for the Living Wage foundation that’s based on needs and costs.

The bad news was that it got away with calculating that on the basis of 25 notional hours of study per week over a national 38 week academic session – 250 hours short.

This matters because, on the assumption that students will make up the difference through part-time work, the amount of maintenance we allow them to access will determine the extent to which they can actually study “full-time”.

The cost of living crisis manifests as a time crisis. And a time crisis is what drives lower engagement, worse belonging, and so on. So given any solution will almost certainly involve compromises that involve allocating time to things like travel and work, it has to be central in the thinking.

As such, a proper look at the courses where time is more precious is crucial. The hours involved on a nursing degree simply offer less opportunities to top up with bar work. And so on.

It also means any future review has a choice – between establishing in principle that the “need” will be anchored to the calculation made annually via the Living Wage Foundation, or via an expanded version of the HEPI work. To avoid getting ourselves into this situation again, it’ll be really important to pick one – and for me, the right one is the one that meets students’ actual costs – and actively decides what’s sensible to expect students to do on work.

Education spending?

The next issue is arguably a fairly sizeable hole in the report’s recommendations – its focus on establishing a level of income to meet costs, rather than taking any steps to reduce those costs.

People have often collapsed into laughter when I’ve suggested that student accommodation should be first on the list for those campaigning for nationalisation – but the fact that we’ve converted education spending into a way of funding asset class investments and pension schemes is one thing – making students borrow the money for that “education” spending is quite another.

One of the main arguments against rent controls is that landlords stop raising rent to cover inflation. It’s just not an argument that applies to the student market.

But this isn’t just about housing. In pretty much every country we’ve visited with SUs in recent years on our study tours, there’s a mixture of national subsidies, regulation and schemes that are designed to reduce the costs of study and living while being a student.

A lot of the items in that basket of HEPI goods are those that don’t benefit from the downward pressures of price competition – and as such, it would do nobody any harm for the Competition and Markets Authority to both recognise this group as vulnerable consumers, and to assess the chances of classic market mechanisms delivering anything other than huge profits for providers over that often distorted basket.

I’ve also argued before that universities themselves have a major role to play here – and that anyone in a university that levies charges on students that is still expected to deliver a surplus (whether contracted out or not) should really be instead required to reduce the costs of study and living in any future university funding/regulatory model.

That there are plenty of universities (and their contractors) whose profits from disadvantaged students using services dwarf the amounts received by the Office for Students to support those students is as preposterous as it is immoral.

Diversity of students

There will be a need to determine what’s done to set a different minimum for some student cases. Right now we maintain different systems for postgraduates, a distinct calculation in the UKRI-set PGR stipend (on which we’re soon due new work on costs and need), and those “plucked from air” adjustments for London and living at home.

Augar itself said we needed a look at students with children and London, as well as a more detailed understanding of the accommodation issue – not something anyone picked up given that DfE ignored that chapter.

Getting support for disabled students right will be conditional upon getting the extent to which we expect disabled students to manage all of their additional costs – and the extent to which we expect them to be able to top up through part-time work. That feels like a whole sub-review of its own – but at least there’s a universal-access principle to hold onto.

And the messy relationship with the benefits system needs a proper look at as well. Is it self-evident that the join up between the non-devolved Department for Work and Pensions and the devolved administrations’ education departments creates a gap rather than an overlap – one that manifests both in process issues and focus/intel (my old bugbear about the official figures on household poverty including loans for tuition comes into sharp focus.)

Another great example of this is the annually updated memo from the DWP (buried somewhere in the secondary legislation) on how PG loans should be treated viz a vis the benefits system. When PG loans were introduced, the view was taken that thirty per cent should be treated as maintenance “income” for the purposes of calculating benefits, and the rest considered tuition spend.

That’s still how it’s done to this day, despite the PG loan not going near covering tuition costs at all – a vexing issue given the Resource Accounting and Budgeting (RAB) charge (ie the subsidy on the loan from the government) is still calculated at 0 per cent, which suggests a central government bandwidth issue rather than any deep desire to save money for the taxpayer.

Check your sources

When it comes to the various ways in which a government might plan for a student to access whatever minimum is determined, the report has some ideas – but clearly wasn’t the principal focus. What will matter here again is setting a principle that can be updated – rather than a figure.

For example, if we must family means-test the total amount that a student can access, the absolute scandal of the fact that the threshold in England has been stuck at £25,000 since 2007 needs to be avoided in the future.

If work is a key component, someone (probably universities or SUs) needs to be put in charge of ensuring that there are sufficient quality opportunities, and the ability to access structured support for problems at work, in the same way that we do for education through SUs.

I also won’t repeat here the desperate need to refine our definitions of “full time” student to allow students to reduce their credit intensity to fit their diversity, learning pace, and allow for setbacks and volunteering.

Similarly, if we must have different rates for living away from home and living in the parental home, we need to commit to examining the respective baskets of costs in detail in a way that we appear to have never done in the past via those arbitrary increases and decreases mentioned earlier. That’s also required on our expensive cities that aren’t London as much as it is to actually assess the realities of the costs students face in London.

Where students combine study with care, the principle that they should not be punished for that is vita. The fact that England’s recent free childcare reforms don’t include people trying to upskill through HE is a genuine scandal.

And naturally, we should apply whatever principles are set across the levels of study.

Money and mouths

Bursaries are mentioned in the report – although as it reminds us, some institutions have a much greater ability to pay than others.

There’s a fascinating campaign that Oxford’s central SU has been supporting right now that compares the various amounts on offer from the collegiate system. It’s exactly the kind of compare-and-shame approach that I’d adopt if I was them.

But zoom out at bit, and even if Oxford managed to harmonise all of its schemes, we’d still have a huge disparity between Oxford and elsewhere. If students accept that some of their fees are used to subsizise other students within their university, it surely follows that students would be prepared to subsizise students at other universities.

The fact that won’t or can’t happen is, for me, exactly why universities shouldn’t be expected to be in the mix for meeting the minimum. Establishing that principle wouldn’t mean the end of impact-assessed and targeted access and participation schemes – but it would mean whether you can access the minimum isn’t dependent on how many other students at your provider are poor, or whether your university has managed its wider finances well over the past few years.

The report has been unusually well received by a host of people, including several university leaders – but what I would say about that is that on the assumption that for the time being the main system isn’t going to meet students’ basic needs, its intel ought to feature in those leaders’ access and participation plans being prepared and submitted now.

One of the astonishing things about the clutch of plans approved last summer is that many justify rolling on their bursary programmes on the basis of historic impact research – without uprating any of the amounts or thresholds for inflation.

If you were giving £1,000 to a family on £25,000 in 2017 and it worked, it’s hard to believe that it will still work. OfS should be crawling all over the unspoken assumptions in those roll-ons – and ought to be requiring universities to use the intel and data in the report if local data on the way costs have increased is missing.

There’s also a strong argument for using the minimum income figure prominently in university cost of living information. The data in the report is almost certainly more sophisticated than the makeshift marketing fluff I’ve seen for the past two summers – and would avoid the tragedy of a family or student thinking they can afford university when they can’t.

That goes for the Home Office figure on maintenance money in the bank too. UKVi hasn’t updated its “£1,023 per month (for up to 9 months)” figure for years – no wonder international students are major users of foods banks and are struggling to pay their fees.

And of course not all programmes lend themselves to combining work and study – or at least count the former as educational while benefitting from free labour. It’s notable that in Australia, the Albanese Government has announced that it will rightly pay students undertaking compulsory work placements across teaching, nursing, midwifery and social work disciplines – partly because they’re propping those services up.

Subsidies and pie slices

The politics might come to matter here. With the SNP in increasing trouble and Welsh Labour seemingly going nowhere, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that we will soon have the same party in charge in all three nations.

Once you get beyond the idea that people’s minimum and basic needs should be fixed and funded rather than traded off with other priorities – or at least that that trading should be done via loans v grants, university bursaries, employer contributions, part-time work, parental contributions or tax incentives (common in other countries) rather than on the headline amount – you can see how devolved administrations might meet the minimum income differently, but it’s hard to see how one Labour government could justify adopting an evidenced minimum income principle if the other two didn’t.

A much closer relationship forged on principles should help with the cross-border chaos of a system where institutional support is based on the country you’re in, maintenance support is based on the country you’re from, and benefits support is based on Westminster regardless. It’s a huge and baffling mess for students and those that advise them – some shared state capacity and some harmonisation (“levelling up, if you will”) would help.

Of course if we really want to invest in student success and our young people in particular, I can make the argument that we should be aspiring to go beyond the establishment of a minimum income, and look instead towards student funding that enables people to study live and work well – especially if students are to be expected to borrow the bulk and pay the majority of it back.

It’s partly what’s wrong with using the Living Wage anchor ratner than a bespoke basket – because it obviously potentially costs more to study than it just to just live well. But we are where we are – which is, for the time being, some distance from the minimum.

What kind of opportunity?

Back to the fixed and funded thing – both on the Wonkhe Show and in an interview with Education Secretary Gilliam Keegan on Radio 4 Today on the day of the report’s launch, the question of the headline trade-offs between access and student maintenance came up.

Keegan’s position – reflected by most who oppose number controls – was that as long as the rate(s) set aren’t impacting access, you can argue that they’re good enough. Another way to frame it would be – as long as we’re not seeing large volumes of drop-out, then the money that’s there should fix another problem. Presenter Amol Rajan’s access argument – that if the amounts are too low then it will harm access – are both as old as time, and easy to refute because the poor and their parents are ambitious.

It’s why everyone involved in this debate should take a step back and think about who cutting the pie so thinly that students can’t afford to eat (let alone build the skills and experience they need to succeed) on the alter of “access” benefits.

My guess is that it makes a lot of well-meaning people feel better, while protecting their jobs. But the harm it is doing to social mobility, mental health and the long-term outcomes of those queuing up to use the UK’s student food banks should probably also be in the mix too.

Put another way – if we can’t afford to support a thousand students to live, but we can afford to support 900 of them, I’m just not sure we think hard enough about whether “number controls are bad, go with the 1,000” is the right answer.

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