No escaping the F-word

October 8, 2004

Finance is tougher than ever for students, so we must offer more aid and advice, says Deian Hopkin.

As the dust settles over the Higher Education Bill debate, the focus of attention in higher education is turning to the affordability of university education. Over the months to come, scholarships and bursaries will multiply, new schemes will be devised to encourage students to invest in ever-more expensive courses and elaborate explanations will demonstrate the beneficial return on investment.

In the new world of top-up fees, finance will always be a hurdle, overcome by some students with parental help, lowered for others by various forms of state intervention. This financial hurdle is becoming more widely discussed than ever, largely because the success of widening participation has drawn into the net students who have far less social and economic capital than their predecessors and this, in turn, increases the risk of individual students, perfectly capable of achieving their full potential, being denied their degree because they have no money.

Only this week, the Prudential produced a survey that claimed that a third of students had considered dropping out because of financial pressure. Four per cent said they would consider prostitution, and a few more would be prepared to take up crime. Surprisingly, given the likely return on investment, far more thought that cleaning toilets or stacking shelves was a preferable option - evidently, students are still a pretty moral lot. Of course, if you ask students whether they are poor, you know what the answer is going to be, whatever the evidence.

Some students, however, face real hardship, often produced by an unforeseen crisis - a student who has been living at home but falls out with parents, the break-up of a relationship, a sudden financial crisis, all of which threaten the student's ability to carry on with a degree course. Over the years, universities have developed increasingly effective support services.

Yet with the best will in the world, there will always be individual students who fall outside the safety net.

This week, I agreed to become chairman of Uniaid, an organisation backed by a collective of like-minded sponsors and philanthropists to help young people overcome the growing financial hurdles into and through higher education. This support will be in the form of practical and immediate help, advice and information.

The total cost of higher education is rising more rapidly than the Retail Price Index. Few families would have anticipated this at the time their potential undergraduates were born 18 or so years ago, and even if they did, would they have guessed at the quantum cost?

The single most expensive element in a student's budget, and the element for which an appropriate bursary is most likely to assist in time of need, is accommodation. This week, therefore, Uniaid launched its accommodation bursary scheme, which builds on a successful pilot in 14 university cities.

Accommodation, however, is only one element in a tough equation.

The heads of student services in UK universities have acknowledged that there is a gap in the provision of clear factual advice over general financial issues. That is why Uniaid - with support from the HSBC bank and the Learning and Skills Council - Jis developing an online guide to finance, All about U , that will guide students through the labyrinth of student financial support. And soon there will be a range of fundraising and marketing initiatives, all designed to expand the provision.

No one believes that a single charitable effort will overcome the financial obstacles that students face, now or in the future. In the past, long before the state stepped in with free tuition and student grants, communities stretched themselves to support young scholars. In one respect, we have moved on: access to higher education is no longer the privilege of the few. Yet, in another way, we may be in danger of moving backwards.

Finance was always an obstacle in the distant past. We must make sure it does not remain so in the future.

Deian Hopkin is vice-chancellor of London South Bank University and chairman of Uniaid.

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