For those who somehow managed to escape the news, the government scrapped maintenance grants in August this year, meaning current first year students will see the potential effects of changes to student finance. To replace the non-repayable grants, maintenance loans have been raised to a maximum of £8200 depending on parents’ income. On paper, this seems a fair give-and-take. But with the recent announcement that tuition fees will rise above £9500 by 2018 alongside inflation, it seems the financial pressures on students are mounting and the government aren’t really doing much to help.
While some may turn to getting a job, and some more despairingly to their overdraft, a growing number of us are relying on the so-called ‘bank of Mum and Dad’, and in a recent survey 49% of us admitted to using it. But while many of us may not feel guilty about getting a bit of a financial boost from time to time, is it really fair that parents should have to make up the extra money not met by maintenance loans?
Firstly, it might be useful to see how the amount of loan you get is actually assessed. Factors like your parents’ income, whether you live at home, on campus, or in your own house, and where you study are all taken into account. To receive the full £8200 your parents must be earning under £25000 a year, while everyone else will receive less the more your parents earn. Again, this seems fair. But in cases when parents get divorced and remarry, the income of the step-parents are also taken into account, meaning you’ll get less loan on the assumption you’ll get more financial help at home.
Many students feel the current system is unfair and doesn’t necessarily give help to everyone who needs it. Cassie Waters, a second year English Literature student, said, “I don’t think it works particularly well. Because my dad is self-employed, it works differently – it comes across that you have more money than you actually do.”
The assumption that parents will help their children make up any shortfall is problematic. In many cases parents either can’t, or won’t, give their children financial help, and there’s no formal obligation for them to do so. In Scotland, parents are legally obliged to assist their child financially until they are 25 if they are “undertaking instruction at an education establishment”. In one case, a student even fought a successful court case against their parents, albeit one where the judge also not-so-subtly suggested the student get a job.
With many struggling to find a balance between paid employment and academic study, students are often left struggling to find other ways to manage the costs of university. Tabloids like The Daily Mail have capitalised on stories of female students hiring themselves out to ‘sugar daddies’ to pay for their degrees.
More commonly, however, is a difficult compromise of quality of living for the sake of paying the rent or buying essential course books. UEA SU this year introduced a new, cheaper ‘value’ food range to help students struggling with the cost of university life, as well as a free printing machine accessible to all students.
Most worrying about changes to finance is whether it will affect people even coming to university. For many, the widely reported difficulties of student finance, as well as the prospect of a minimum debt of around £27,000, is just too much of a gamble. In the Sodexo survey, when asked if the scrapping of maintenance grants would have affected their choice of university, 18% said they wouldn’t have come at all. Universities might increasingly become an exclusive space for those whose parents can afford to pay their way, and this rich-poor divide is concerning. It is, however, an outcome we might have predicted. Those government number-crunchers dishing out our maintenance loans never had to experience fees this high, so what would they know?