Student debt has escalated in the past four years, hitting poor students hardest, according to a government survey published this week.
Between 1998-99 and 2002-03, anticipated average debt on graduation increased by a factor of 2.5 to £8,666 as loans replaced student grants.
Higher education minister Alan Johnson angered students by putting a positive spin on the news ahead of next week's Queen's Speech, which will introduce the bill on top-up tuition fees. He said that talk of debts of more than £10,000 was excessive.
"Most students' standard of living has risen over the past four years, with increases in personal, entertainment and recreational travel expenditure pushing up overall costs," he said.
The Department for Education and Skills said the largest increases in student living costs came from expenditure on non-study-related travel (such as holidays) and personal expenditure, including mobile phones. The survey also found that spending on alcohol had fallen by 10 per cent.
Claire Callender, author of the report and professor of social policy at London South Bank University, disagreed, saying: "There is no evidence that students' standard of living has improved." She added: "The proportion of students with mobile phones is lower than in their age group as a whole. In this day and age are mobiles really non-basic expenditure?"
National Union of Students president Mandy Telford said: "For the government to use the survey to defend its regressive student funding policies would be funny if it wasn't so misguided and insulting."
The DFES said: "Increased debt is a natural effect from changes in the student support system. As loans are means tested it is to be expected poorer students would have higher loans."
The 2002-2003 Student Income and Expenditure Survey also found that a quarter of parents did not contribute towards fees. As a result, 26 per cent of students had to make up the shortfall, up from 20 per cent in 1998-99. The survey also found that 58 per cent of students worked during term, up from 47 per cent in 1998-99.
Mr Johnson said: "Too many students are having to find more than £700 in upfront fees each year because their parents are not paying the assessed contribution. Getting rid of upfront fees in 2006 will make the system fairer for middle-income students as well as their parents."
- Students who did not pay tuition fees because their parents had incomes of under £20,480 a year accrued average debts of £9,708, with half having debts of over £10,392
- Students whose parents' residual incomes were more than £30,502 a year and so paid fees in full had debts of £6,806
- The survey found that in 2002-03 students' total average income over the year was £5,513, an increase of 7 per cent on 1998-99
- Student total average expenditure was £6,897, up 15 per cent on 1998-99.