A report by the National Union of Students (NUS) has found a clear link between class and poverty in tertiary education, leading the union to call on the government to create a minimum living income for students as part of its review of higher education funding.
The NUS set up a poverty commission of twelve experts to gather evidence on the experiences of students from the age of 16.
The report argued whatever they study, the costs for working-class students are a major hurdle.
According to the report, “the evidence showed that – in different ways, and not always intentionally – the result of this link is a ‘poverty premium’ endemic to further and higher education.”
The report says this means students from working-class backgrounds often pay higher costs in order to access post-16 education as a consequence of class and poverty. These costs range from ‘direct costs’ such as higher interest charges on student loans or commercial debt to ‘indirect costs’ such as transport and accommodation issues which ‘better-off’ students do not have to face.
Speaking to the BBC, President of the NUS Shakira Martin said “the system as it currently stands is totally unfair.
“Students that are coming from working class and disadvantaged families end up leaving university with more debt than those from middle-class families.”
“Further education transformed my life and gave me the second chance I needed,” she added.
The report not only examined the experiences of working-class students in higher education, but in further education such as colleges and apprenticeships, where students are more likely to be from lower-income homes.
Another key finding of the report was that working-class students are more likely to have employment in a job which requires more than 15 hours of work per week, above the recommended level for students.
The NUS firstly wants the government to regularly update its estimates of how much students have to spend and the actual costs of living and studying. They also called for the restoration of maintenance grants for students and to improve support for those at college. Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of University Alliance, said student poverty has been missing from debates about higher education funding for too long.
“The NUS Poverty Commission report is an important corrective to this, highlighting the challenges which many students – particularly those from working-class backgrounds or studying part-time – face in accessing and succeeding in post-16 education.”
Responding to the report a spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “No young person should experience barriers to their education – and our reforms to higher, further and technical education are going further than any before to make sure that every young person can fulfil their potential, whatever their background.”