Almost one third of students in Northern Ireland are taking jobs partly to avoid the trap of student loans, a survey claims.
Although students in the province are more likely to receive full mandatory awards than their mainland counterparts (almost 45 per cent compared to 29 per cent in England and Wales), which reflects generally lower parental incomes, Ulster students also have a lower take-up rate for student loans - 29 per cent compared to 37 per cent in the United Kingdom as a whole.
The most comprehensive survey of students in further and higher education shows more than 30 per cent working during term time, and 10 per cent of those working more than 20 hours a week. It claims they are skipping lectures, missing meals and often living in uninhabitable and sometimes dangerous conditions to save money.
Student unions in the province last week launched a campaign to press the Government to increase further and higher education opportunities in the wake of the paramilitary ceasefires.
They marched into Belfast city centre on November 16 to warn the province's Department of Education against slavishly following Great Britain and to highlight increased poverty among students.
The National Union of Students and Union of Students in Ireland manager Peter O'Neill said: "Government policies are creating appalling levels of hardship and debt for thousands of students in Northern Ireland and threaten to inhibit economic development."
As on the mainland, funding for students in further education colleges is in many cases non-existent with discretionary awards from the education area boards (local authorities) having been hit hard by budget cuts.
For students in higher education, grant cuts, along with the loss of the older student allowance and the inability of many parents to meet their expected contribution to maintenance, "have all contributed to making many student lives a misery", the report said.
One in four of those surveyed has considered dropping out of higher education because of financial hardship and 60 per cent have used their own savings to finance the cost of their degrees.
The majority of students said they would be much better off if they were unemployed and receiving benefits than studying full time. For example, an unemployed person over 50 is more than Pounds 45 per week better off than a student of the same age, who is not even entitled to a student loan.
The union argued that Northern Ireland needs an increase in the number of places for new entrants to higher education of 4,014 to match Scotland and 1,769 to match Wales.
The report concluded: "In the new circumstances afforded by the ceasefires, major economic benefit would result by increasing places and the value of student grants. In fact over Pounds 38 million would be immediately injected into the Northern Ireland economy by up-rating available student places to the level of Scotland."