“Ensure students have the money to live.” This was the top recommendation in the National Union of Students’ first report into class and poverty in post-16 education in the UK.
The recommendation struck me. It struck me that we still have to remind the government to provide enough funding just so that students can survive and that those in power still need to be told that students are struggling to make ends meet.
The report from the NUS Poverty Commission said that there was “a clear link between class and poverty in tertiary education”. Furthermore, the report found that this link led to a “poverty premium”, where students from lower-income families end up paying higher costs to access post-16 education. This ranges from direct costs such as higher interest charges on student loans to indirect costs such as higher transport or accommodation charges “arising from having fewer opportunities and choices than better-off students”.
The report addresses something that has been a long-running concern in higher education; that the cost of university is becoming so extortionate that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are discouraged from attending and are struggling to see the value of spending £9,000 a year to further their education.
I can imagine that if you already feel as though you are on the back foot, you would hardly feel motivated to put yourself in a situation that could prove to be even more detrimental to your finances.
And so, rather unsurprisingly, the report says that working-class students are more likely to be employed in a job where they are working more than 15 hours a week. Such employment has the potential to really impact on the amount of time that a student can spend studying or engaged in extracurricular activities.
On top of this, working-class students often face stereotypes based on their background and could also have limited access to guidance and support for higher education, meaning that they are less informed about the doors that higher and further education can open.
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In order to level the playing field for all students, the NUS report contains a series of recommendations including the introduction of a minimum living income for students in higher education, further education and those undertaking apprenticeships.
Another recommendation was to review the way that student loan payments are provided so that weekly or monthly instalments are the norm rather than the current termly system. The theory is that such an approach would mean that students could budget better when they are not expected to make a lump sum payment last for 10 weeks. I don’t know many adults in full-time employment who could manage a 10-week budget, so it seems absurd to expect students, who have less financial education, to be able to do the same.
The NUS also recommends reinstating grant funding including maintenance loans for undergraduates and NHS bursaries for healthcare students. Means-testing for student loan funding should also be put under review, according to the union, to ensure a fairer system. All these strong recommendations could certainly help students.
I recently spoke to Turner prizewinning artist Grayson Perry about art degrees and his fear that they could become the preserve of the privileged owing to the perceived notion that there is less career stability and earning potential in the arts and creatives industries.
His fear could be applied to higher education as a whole if tuition fees continue to rise, the student loan funding system doesn’t adapt to reflect living costs, and if students from working-class backgrounds aren’t given the support that they need to be able to go to university and not worry about money.
Given the rising cost of transport, rent, food and course supplies, it’s little wonder that working-class students are struggling to make ends meet if they don’t have family support to fall back on.
If problems are not tackled and top-level changes aren’t made, we could end up in a situation where only students with wealthy parents go to university and the economy misses out on a significant swathe of UK talent.
Required Reading is the regular blog from Times Higher Education student editor Seeta Bhardwa