More unspeakably grim numbers on student financial support

Any day now, we should be getting detail on next year’s maintenance loan increases for students in England.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Unless there’s a major policy change, it’s likely to be just 2.5 per cent – because that’s the OBR’s forecast for Q1 2025. And if the parental income threshold remains fixed at £25,000, even students will get whatever is touted as the max.

It’s almost certainly not enough. Today the Sutton Trust has published new polling that finds a majority of students are now spending less than the minimum needed on food while at university.

Its polling by Savanta shows that 62 per cent spend less than £37 a week on food, which is the minimum needed for a single person to buy essential food items according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trussell Trust.

Overall, students living at university in England outside of London have median costs of £11,400 a year on essential spending. These essential costs include accommodation (on average 52 per cent of their spending), groceries (12 per cent), and bills (6 per cent).

But the median total loan in England outside of London of £7,000 – equivalent to 61 per cent of spend – comes nowhere near covering these basic needs.

Back in January previous work from the Trust found that 63 per cent of students reporting spending less on food and essentials to cope with increases in the cost of living, with 28 per cent saying they had skipped meals to save on food costs.

It found two thirds of students taking on paid work, with 1 in 5 working more than the widely recommended maximum of 15 hours per week. Half had missed classes as a result, and 23 per cent reported that they had missed a deadline or asked for an extension in order to work.

We’d have to assume that all of those numbers are worse now.

What is now repeatedly emerging in polling is a bifurcation between haves and have-nots. Median spending on essentials by students from working-class backgrounds (C2DE) is approximately 21 per cent less than those from middle-class families (ABC1), and as well as spending less, the make-up of working-class students’ spending is also very different to that of better-off students.

66 per cent of working-class students’ essential spending goes on rent and bills, compared to 54 per cent for their more affluent peers. As a result, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are spending less on groceries – at £120 a month – compared to £140 a month spent by their better off peers.

The Sutton Trust is naturally calling for overall maintenance levels to be increased to better reflect the true cost of living for students. It’s also calling for maintenance grants to be reintroduced in England, so students from lower-income households are better able to meet their basic needs without being left with the highest levels of debt when they leave university.

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder of the Sutton Trust and Founder of the Education Endowment Foundation, calls the situation “a disgrace”:

No student should be forced to cut back on food. Although it’s fair to expect students to undertake some part-time work, many are having to take on 16-30 hours of paid work to make ends meet. It’s essential that maintenance grants should be re-introduced in England so that students can meet their basic needs without graduating with excessive debt.

I’m writing this on Monday evening, and so I haven’t seen the press coverage yet – but I’ll bet a spokesperson for the Department for Education (DfE) mentions what we’ve repeatedly called the magic money twig – the HE version of the pupil premium that was supposed to be for the additional costs that providers in England have of supporting those most at risk of dropping out, that DfE touts as the answer to the problem every time.

It’s worth less every year and has to stretch to more students every year, but that doesn’t stop it being waggled about.

I’ll also bet that said DfE spokesperson says that students who are struggling should approach their university for hardship funds, despite universities outside of that premium having less to spend every year such support.

Given those are the things that the DfE spokesperson says every single time that research comes out, you’d think that someone would have concluded out by now that their approach isn’t working – and would feel a bit ashamed of the cut and paste. Alas, no sign of that.

In terms of scrutiny, naturally the Work and Pensions Select Committee never looks at the issue because it’s a different department, and unlike benefits, is devolved. Meanwhile the Commons Education Committee hasn’t looked at student financial support since DfE took over universities, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee never bothered in its time post-2010, and the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee didn’t bother before that.

In fact we have to go back to 2002 – some 21 years ago – since the select committee that scrutinises the policy area bothered to work out if students had enough to live on. Charming.

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