Some mature students are so poor that their children will go without presents this Christmas, according to a report on student finances commissioned by the government.
Lone parents, who often decide to go to university to improve their employment chances and better provide for their children, are identified as the most financially vulnerable in the report published on Wednesday.
The 3-page study focuses on student income, expenditure and take-up of loans in the years up to and including 1998-99, when the government introduced tuition fees and halved maintenance grants, prior to abolition. Though the study was commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment, many of the findings undermine the government's student-funding policies.
Detailed analysis by authors Claire Callender and Martin Kemp of South Bank University leads them to observe that government policies may deter poorer people from university, even though they are the focus of its drive to widen participation.
The authors suggest there is a link between debt aversion among poor students and a deterrent effect on them. The report also establishes a link between the financial hardship experienced by poorer students and university dropout rates.
Owain James, president of the National Union of Students, said: "The DFEE's survey is a damning indictment of student funding. This survey was carried out before the abolition of the maintenance grant and so the picture today is likely to be worse. What more evidence does the government need? It must act now to return maintenance grants to those from the poorest backgrounds."
Findings were based on face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 2,054 full-time students and 747 part-timers.
According to the report, three-fifths of full-time students had friends who were deterred from going to university by the 1998 changes to student funding. Almost 90 per cent of full-time and 76 per cent of part-time students said they had experienced some financial hardship under the policy of tuition fees and student loans. Nearly 66 per cent of full-time and 40 per cent of part-time students thought financial difficulties damaged their studies.
The report found that the poorest students were forced to borrow the most money through the student-loans scheme, even though they were the most debt-averse.
Shadow education secretary Theresa May said: "What is particularly striking is the impact on the very students the government is trying to attract. It is incomprehensible that it did not foresee this. We hear all the spin about widening participation, but the delivery is very different."
Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman Evan Harris said: "The report proves conclusively that government policy has been counterproductive. It is another nail in the coffin for its grant-cutting, fee-raising approach."
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK (formerly the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals), said: "If fear of debt is one of the factors deterring applications, we will address this issue urgently as part of our funding review."
UUK is carrying out research into student finances, including an investigation into perceptions of student debt among people intending to go to university. It has appointed Professor Callender to carry out the research along with a team led by John Brennan, director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information at the Open University.
Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone focused on one of the few positive aspects in the report - the rise in student incomes between 1995-96 and 1998-99. The minister conceded that students who are parents experience financial hardship. She referred to new child-care grants, bursaries to be introduced next year and targeted support for mature students.
DEBT SOARS FOR TRAINEE MEDICS
Debt among medical students has risen by more than 20 per cent, according to the British Medical Association, writes Claire Sanders .
The BMA has found the biggest increase in debt - an average 81 per cent - to be among second-year students.
A spokesperson said: "We cannot fully explain this increase, except to say that this is the first year hit by loss of grants and fees."
The average debt for first-year students has risen by 37 per cent. By the final year of study, average debt is about £10,000.
The survey also shows increased debt among students from low-income families. Kate Duffield, chairperson of the association's medical students committee, said: "Debts are spiralling out of control. It is going to affect the social mix of people recruited to the National Health Service."