Student Lives in Crisis: Deepening Inequality in Times of Austerity, by Lorenza Antonucci

Book of the week: University costs embed inequality and exact a painful toll on individuals, Sorana Vieru says

September 15, 2016
Students holding letters spelling 'Debt', University of New Mexico
Source: Alamy
Ways and means: student debt is often treated in an abstract way, with policymakers insisting that it’s not something to worry about as students will not earn enough to pay it back

In the past year, the government has abolished student maintenance grants and NHS bursaries for student nurses, cut the Disabled Students’ Allowance, changed loan repayment terms so that graduates start paying back more, sooner, and is about to lift the cap on tuition fees in England.

As students’ rights campaigners have been saying for some time, not everyone has a privileged and smooth passage through university, and now, with Student Lives in Crisis, an academic is saying it, too.

Lorenza Antonucci here examines how mass systems of higher education in countries where the welfare state has dwindled serve to shape inequality. University is typically a phase of semi-dependence, as students shift from reliance on family to independent life, floating between self-generated means of support via work and what they receive from families or the state. As this valuable study shows, this transition can entrench, rather than reduce, social inequalities.

This book could easily have been titled “Why the Higher Education White Paper Is Wrong”, as the government’s reform agenda has little to do with improving social mobility or making universities truly accessible. Antonucci’s study highlights the flaw in the liberal dream that simply expanding student numbers can address social inequality. She highlights policymakers’ obsession about “access through the door” and “graduate destinations” while ignoring attainment, success, housing and employment, and probes the negative impact of an individualised approach to funding higher education, in which young people are increasingly expected to go to university but must meet the rising costs themselves.

What is new about this study, unlike so many analyses of student debt, is its deep dive into the lived experiences of individual young people in higher education, and their struggles, worries, hopes and dreams. This book doesn’t merely talk about inequality – it shows how it works in practice. Over nine chapters, Antonucci looks closely at 84 students from a range of socio-economic backgrounds from Sweden, Italy and England, three countries with quite different welfare state models. Findings from surveys and interviews are analysed via the prism of various sources of funding for degrees, or “welfare mixes”: family support, state support (through grants and loans) and earnings from work while studying.

In Sweden – Antonucci’s example of a high level of state intervention – there are no tuition fees, and a generous, non-means-tested, universal system of student support is in place. In Italy, representing minimal public intervention, there are low fees and a limited grant system, with only a small minority of eligible students receiving funds. England, the “investor model”, has high fees and a mix of universal and means-tested loans and grants.

Stopping frequently to summarise and reinforce, Antonucci’s analysis of the English sector is refreshing, moving away from a focus on mission groups and types of institutions – divisions that too often hinder progressive change, as every institution watches what its neighbour does. (Nothing amused me more than hearing the journalist Nick Robinson refer to “the so-called Russell Group” on telly recently, as if they were Islamic State.)

Antonucci argues that as record numbers enter university, the graduate premium has waned, so existing privilege and the reconfiguration of “welfare mixes” across Europe are the most significant factors in the rise in inequality among this generation. She makes a case for universal student support, because an assessment of family income doesn’t account for debt and thus does not reflect the availability of support. Her arguments shed light on how students who can mobilise family resources have an advantage in managing social risk and avoiding debt.

Too often, student debt is treated in an abstract way, with policymakers insisting blithely that it’s not something to worry about as we’ll never earn enough to pay the loans back (what an inspiration for a generation!), or proclaiming that it is only a distant niggle in the back of most students’ minds – which is simply not true.

As Antonucci’s study shows, students’ experiences of university are shaped by the amount of part-time and casualised work that they undertake and the level of family support versus state support that they receive, with all these affecting well-being and success. Where the state steps away, the family intervenes or paid employment is sought. The accounts that Antonucci presents shine a clear light on the two-tiered student experience: some enjoy university life without the need to get a job, and others have to juggle study and work to make ends meet – particularly those without a family safety net.

The diversity of experiences outside the classroom, too, can be polarising, with housing and financial situations having a marked influence on retention. Indeed, the impact of external conditions on disadvantaged students’ educational experience is something that Jo Johnson, the UK’s universities minister, needs urgently to address, and to admit that retention rates are a very bad measure of teaching quality.

Our media portray young people as choosing to delay adulthood by going to university. This couldn’t be further from the truth, Antonucci reveals, as her interviewees in all three countries strive to achieve independence from their families. Graduate outcomes and employability are high on their agenda for precisely this reason, not because they accept the consumerist “value for money” discourse. Students today are in the risky business of using precarious jobs in a broken labour market to manage the risks of their student lives.

Student income falling short of the costs of studying is a reality that all who aren’t well-off have faced. Coping strategies include not only accruing more debt and maxing out overdrafts, but also cutting corners on basic expenses. How disadvantage plays out isn’t a joke to be used in savvy student-directed advertising; it is real, and significant, and affects student health. Antonucci’s participants’ accounts of skipping meals to make the rent and using Nectar card points to buy food are the kinds of experiences that our politicians and those who believe that university is a personal indulgence need to read about before talking about “student choice”. Not every student, of course, has the same experience: among Antonucci’s respondents, there was a positive outlook among those who managed to meet their costs, and an even more positive one from those for whom state support was enough to help improve their financial situation during studies. I admit that I cackled cynically when the respondents who said that they were very happy and had no worries turned out to be – yes, you guessed it – wealthy.

The pressure to perform and the constant worry about debt and graduate prospects defines contemporary student life. What Antonucci’s research also really brings to life is the current state of students’ mental and emotional well-being. With one in four students in the UK accessing counselling services, the mismatch between expectations and labour market realities is something that we are not talking about enough. Students’ mental health takes a double hit from knowing that state and family resources have been deployed with the aim of getting them into a good job, but also knowing full well they may never be able to pay it back. Could skyrocketing tuition fees not be the way forward after all? Just a thought…

As is often the case, the student movement has been right all along: higher education funding policies can amplify, rather than fix, an already unequal state of affairs. State support alone will not reduce inequality, and, as we have seen with the switch from maintenance grants to loans and increasing tuition fees in England, poorer people are now graduating with more and more debt.

Antonucci’s excellent and timely study hammers home the fact that there is insufficient focus on the stratified labour market and differences in the graduate premium across subjects and class, and, I’d add, across gender and race. All are issues that she could profitably examine in future. In the meantime, education policymakers need urgently to look at employment and housing policies that affect student lives.

I’m often dismissed as an idealist, but a study such as this one shows clearly how the so-called realism and pragmatism of higher education policymakers fail to achieve the very goals that they claim to support. Why not aim high instead of low? When I put this book down, I was left thinking, “one solution: revolution”.

Sorana Vieru is vice-president (higher education), National Union of Students.

Student Lives in Crisis: Deepening Inequality in Times of Austerity
By Lorenza Antonucci
Policy, 224pp, £17.99
ISBN 9781447318248
Published 21 September 2016

The author

Lorenza Antonucci, senior/research lecturer in social policy and sociology at Teesside University, comes from Abruzzo in the Mezzogiorno, the south of Italy.

How does she believe this background has shaped her? “I think I have seen things in my childhood that didn’t feel ‘right’, and this gave me a practical understanding of what social justice is. And my family encouraged different and nonconformist thinking,” she adds.

Antonucci studied economics at the elite Bocconi University in Milan. “As I am the first person of my family to go to university, I was very determined, and very idealistic, too, as I wanted to make a difference. I was gregarious, but kept my own way of thinking.”

As an undergraduate, she recalls, she was aware of the impact of financial instability thanks to her “experiences at the ‘dormitory of low-income students’: sharing our free meals, avoiding going out and spending, lending and borrowing money, the pressure we had to keep our scholarships – and the difference between those experiences and the ‘carefree’ lives of wealthy peers”.

If she could change one thing about her current institution, Antonucci says that it would be for Teesside to “invest more in ‘academic thinking’ than management”. As for her alma mater, “described by Mark Blyth as the academic laboratory of neoliberalism”, she “would encourage an understanding of economics based on people’s lives more than econometric models.”

What gives Antonucci hope?

“I believe that 20 years from now, this generation of young Europeans (those in the UK included) who faced similar struggles to those I found when researching this book will address the inequalities of our continent by putting public interests over the rules of the market. In the short term, my mum’s love.”

Karen Shook


Print headline: Failing system, broken dreams

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