Andrea Jenkyns on student cost of living

Just before the death of Queen Elizabeth II it was announced that Andrea Jenkyns would be staying on as a minister at the Department for Education - it just wasn’t clear what the brief was going to be.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Now post the period of national mourning, Andrea Jenkyns MP has emerged as a “parliamentary under secretary of state” (very much not attending Cabinet) and DfE’s webpages are calling her the minister for skills, further and higher education – effectively a merger of the old portfolios held by Michelle Donelan and Alex Burghart.

A clutch of questions on students and cost of living have been backing up during the past week or so – but we are now starting to see a consistent collection of lines emerge from the department (a good example of which can be found in the answer to this written question) that are worth looking at in detail.

Maximum grants and loans for living costs have been increased by 2.3% for the 2022/23 academic year.

You’ll see there’s little shame here about the vast disparity between 2.3 percent and the current experienced rates of inflation (which are higher for those on low incomes), and no reference to the undershooting that happened last year that is compounding the problem. And yes, she’s only talking here about English domiciled undergraduates that study in England – everyone else being completely invisible as usual. Maybe she doesn’t know about UKRI stipends. Or maybe she’s ashamed not to be implementing something similar for undergrads.

The government is reviewing options for uprating maximum grants and loans for the 2023/24 academic year and an announcement will follow in the autumn.

In a usual year we’ve already had an announcement from the universities minister on maximum rates for 2023/24 – so news that “options” are on the table rather than just taking the last OBR Q3 2024 estimate are either positive or negative depending on your outlook. And what are these “grants” she speaks of?

Students who have been awarded a loan for living costs for the 2022/23 academic year that is lower than the maximum, and whose household income for the tax year 2022/23 has dropped by at least 15% compared to the income provided for their original assessment, can apply for their entitlement to be reassessed.

Here’s where we start barrel scraping. What Jenkyns is referring to here is the SLC mechanism that allows a student to get their means-tested loan increased in value if their household income has fallen. There’s no mechanism of course if the value of the existing household income has fallen dramatically via inflation, so this is no help.

In addition, maximum tuition fees, and the subsidised loans available from the government to pay them, remain at £9,250 for the 2022/23 academic year, in respect of standard full-time courses. We are also freezing maximum tuition fees for the 2023/24 and 2024/25 academic years. By 2024/25, maximum fees will have been frozen for seven years. As well as reducing debt levels for students, the continued fee freeze will help to ensure that the higher education (HE) system remains sustainable while also promoting greater efficiency at providers.

This is another way of saying that the government is putting less in and graduates are putting more in – because for every £1 loaned to a student, less of it will be written off than it was in the past. It has pretty much no impact on the pound in students’ pockets in any event.

The government recognises the additional cost of living pressures that have arisen this year and that have impacted students. Many HE providers have hardship funds that students can apply to for assistance.

To support disadvantaged students and those who need additional help, we have confirmed in our guidance to the Office for Students (OfS) on funding for the 2022/23 financial year that universities will continue to be able to support students in hardship through their own hardship funds and the student premium, for which up to £261 million is available for the academic year 2022/23.

This is a particularly shameful combo of paras – we’ve covered the magic money twig before, but let’s just remind ourselves of what that guidance letter she refers to said about student hardship:

The exceptional circumstances of the pandemic in academic year 2020/21 saw a sharp rise in student financial hardship. That is why we made £85m of one-off student hardship funding available to higher education providers in the 2020-21 academic year and designated a further £5m for student hardship in the Strategic Priorities Grant for the 2021-22 financial year.

Assessment of the probability of such exceptional circumstances prevailing in 2022/23 academic year has led us to discontinue this additional £5m allocation. Universities will continue to be able to support students in hardship through their own hardship funds and the student premium.

The government has also worked closely with the OfS to clarify that English providers can draw upon this funding now, to provide hardship funds and support disadvantaged students impacted by cost-of-living pressures.

I have no idea what this means, unless she’s trying to say that thanks to DfE providers can spend money on students that they have been allocated. Whoopie do.

As part of a package of support for rising energy bills, the government is giving a council tax rebate payment of £150 to households that were living in a property in council tax bands A to D as their main home on 1 April 2022. This includes full-time students that do not live in student halls or in property that is not considered a house in multiple occupation for council tax purposes.

That’s a tricky sentence to understand – so much so that there’s a whole Wonk Corner on it here from March.

Alongside this, the government is also making available discretionary funding of £144 million to support vulnerable people and individuals on low incomes, including students, to support those who are ineligible for council tax.

What do we think are the chances of any of this reaching students? And if it does, let’s assume that we’ll never know how much – as was the case with equivalent funding during Covid.

The government has also announced that households will get £400 of support with their energy bills through an expansion of the Energy Bills Support Scheme. Students who buy their energy from a domestic supplier are also eligible for this support.

And those that don’t, aren’t. Useless.

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