Studies suffer in poverty trap

September 24, 1999

Allowing students to claim housing benefit once more will help tackle poverty, argues Andrew Pakes

The cost of housing affects every student. Even the so-called "me generation" has to pay rent. Recent research shows that students spend around 60 per cent of their income on rent - between Pounds 40 and Pounds 50 on average each week - and this is climbing sharply.

This is why students should be able to claim housing benefit. The sad truth at present is that if you are a student who takes out the full student loan entitlement, you will get around Pounds 25 a week less than someone who has been long-term unemployed.

We must stop treating students as if they are different. When we work, give us the full minimum wage. When we suffer hardship, give us benefits. When we are earning more, expect us to pay taxes. Students need to be treated as equal citizens in society.

This week, I have been in Harrogate at the Liberal Democrat conference, listening to them argue just that. Liberal Democrats have called for the reintroduction of housing benefits for students.

It was the Conservative government that took housing benefit away in 1990 and it is the Labour government that can give it back. In recent years, education has undergone a quiet revolution. The membership of the National Union of Students increased from just under a million to almost three and a half million between 1980 and 1999. With government plans on the horizon for a further expansion, higher education needs a funding system that can operate on a mass scale. The benefits system has that mass infrastructure already in place.

Not only are there more students than ever before, but there are also many different types of students, including mature students, both with and without children, and part-time students. Only a flexible maintenance system and a radical rethink on student financial support can encourage such students to come forward for university.

This is not pie in the sky. The Cubie committee on Scottish student funding is also considering making students once more eligible for housing benefit. And now the Liberal Democrats have accepted it as the most sensible solution to the student poverty trap.

Maintenance funding is a complex matter to which simplistic solutions are too often applied. The reality is that only a mixed system of funding can tackle all the problems of student poverty. Students who can afford to pay for their living expenses should do so, but the very poorest students need to be reincorporated back into society's safety net. The government has to tackle the obstacles facing the underclass of students whose desperate attempts to make ends meet seriously jeopardise their studies.

Andrew Pakes is president of the National Union of Students.

Should students be able to claim housing benefit? Email us on

soapbox@thesis.co.uk

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