Union exposes despair of hard-up students

June 21, 2002

The financial plight of the UK's students has been laid bare in thousands of letters sent to prime minister Tony Blair.

More than 3,000 letters handed into Downing Street in February have been released by the National Union of Students as part of its campaign for a return to maintenance grants and an end to tuition fees.

The letters, written by students at the behest of the NUS, paint a picture of lives blighted by money worries, long hours spent working for cash and disenchantment with the Labour government.

The letters, from which some senders' names and institutions have been removed by the NUS to preserve anonymity, were presented to No 10 on February 19, the day before a mass demonstration in London. By releasing the letters, the NUS hopes to exert some final influence over the outcome of the government's student-support review due out later this year.

One first-year student writes: "My parents are unable to support me financially.

"I work all but four days of the Christmas 'holiday' and that gives me just enough money to afford a few books and equipment.

"During the term I live on a diet of pasta, rice and toast as it is all I can afford, leaving me with no energy for my 9am to 6pm lectures, bored and, most importantly, undernourished.

"At uni we're supposed to be having the best days of our lives, yeah right! With a diet like that, no money and a bank card which is constantly cancelled (I'd get a first if there was a degree course in begging to Barclays for overdraft extensions) how are we supposed to enjoy it?

"Please don't let this be the future for us. Please don't make us live in a society where education is only available to those who are fortunate enough to have parents who can support them."

Brett Racher is paying his own way through a BA in business studies at Nottingham Trent University. He found he had to pay for medical treatment because he was assessed as earning too much. He says in his letter: "I will finally emerge from university, hopefully a graduate, knackered through trying to effectively work two full-time jobs (bar work and uni) around 15K in debt.

"Why does the government not provide more help for students who are self-supporting? Surely, by being self-supporting we should be encouraged to go to uni and not (be) punished."

Joanne Markham, a mature student at Lewisham College, says: "My reason for writing is that I have two daughters, one of whom is in the sixth form at school and the other in year 10. Both my daughters could reasonably be expected to go to university.

"I find myself wondering whether my husband and I can afford for them to go. We are both working full-time in the public sector, have a modest house and have worked hard all our lives.

"To someone like yourself who benefited from a student grant whilst studying at university, and likewise your wife, would you deny the same right to someone who could not otherwise afford to go to university? It seems to me to be utterly hypocritical, or am I wrong in thinking that a Labour government would support equal opportunities for all?"

Linsay Baker writes: "I would like you to consider the working-class families and students who have no support from families when you address the grants, as the number one stress factor in my life now is whether or not I will be able to pay my rent next month."

The letters were passed by Downing Street to the Department for Education and Skills, which replied at length to the NUS.

Part of the reply says: "The government does recognise that some very real concerns have been raised about the student support arrangements, not least by those students who have participated in the recent campaign."

Mandy Telford, NUS president elect, said: "The government has said it is consulting widely during the student funding review and these letters are literally thousands of pieces of evidence that cannot be ignored."

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