By Shawna Healey
Student loans and grants are a touchy subject due to students receiving different levels of financial support depending on their socio-economic and family backgrounds, particularly for students who come from a middle-class background who are frustrated by the lower level of support they receive. While this annoyance is valid, it can drown out the voices of students from low-income families at university, who need the extra money as their family simply cannot afford to “put them through” university.
Eligibility for loans and grants varies depending on which country in the UK that you apply from. Welsh students, for instance, are eligible to both tuition loans and grants if studying at a British university, the loan being repayable, and the grant not repayable unless the student leaves their course early. The majority of English students, however, with the exception of those whose courses are funded by outside bodies such as the NHS, are not eligible for tuition grants and so, while they can receive full tuition loans of either £9000 or £9250 per year, this amount is repayable in full. Since 2016, students in England have also not been eligible for maintenance grants regardless of socio-economic background. Maintenance loans are repayable and vary in amount, usually, with the exception of estranged and mature students, due to the student’s parents’ economic circumstances.
This initially seems like a good idea – people who come from wealthier families receive less money, and people who don’t receive more – but it also means that poorer students are left owing more in loan repayments, systematically keeping them poorer for longer. There is an argument to be made that there should be a universal system so that everyone receives the same amount, but is that fair, either? Is taking money from poorer students to give to students who receive money from their parents, and can afford to go to university without worrying how they’re going to get through it financially, morally acceptable?
I am from a low income, single-parent family from Wales, and so I receive the full maintenance loan that is available to me – a repayable amount of roughly £4,900 per year – and the maximum Welsh Government Learning Grant of £5,160, equating overall to roughly £10,000 per academic year. Despite this, I also work part time, and have done for the past 2 years while attending college, because I’ve had to support myself. Without these grants, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to come to university, and a lot of people, even with the help of loans, simply cannot afford university education due to the rising cost of living.
Having adult family members ask to borrow money is embarrassing and difficult to admit to people, especially to friends from different economic backgrounds, but it’s something that many students from low-income backgrounds experience. It is difficult for people from different backgrounds to see and understand that even though many students from low-income backgrounds both work and receive maximum financial assistance, they remain poor. Having to worry about how to pay a deposit for a house, or summer rent, or having to pay a few hundred pounds for a course trip, is incredibly stressful, and often depressing. These are just a few of the largely unrecognised costs of attending university away from home – costs which maintenance loans and grants barely cover, if they cover them at all.
Of course, some argue that people who can’t afford to live away from home shouldn’t, and should instead go to a local university, but this attitude is completely unfair, and overlooks the social and cultural benefits that living away at home university can provide, such as increased independence. Living away from home teaches students fundamental life skills that they may otherwise not learn or have to learn later on in life, like cooking and cleaning, setting up appointments and scheduling, and everything mundane but necessary that comes with living on your own. It also overlooks the fact that courses may not be available locally in areas which students wish to study, and that there may be no easily accessible university local to students from rural areas, for instance.
Going to university is a privilege, and it’s a privilege that for some people just cannot access, despite being academically suited for university, due to economic circumstances. Having to juggle work and university is difficult, and while it isn’t limited to poorer students – better-off students may also work alongside their studies – there is a vital conversation to be had about students who can barely get through university because of financial strain. Particularly for students on courses with demanding hours, such as nursing and medical degrees, balancing work and study time is incredibly difficult, and while better-off students may be able to choose to work minimal hours in light of this, this often isn’t an option for students from low-income households, and this pressure puts some people off from even applying to university in the first place.
The term “poor student” is banded around a lot, but its meaning is questionable. There is no doubt that many – if not most – students have to tightly budget their money, but having family support and inherited money to fall back on is a comfort, and a privilege, which a lot of people don’t have. Being a “poor student” and being a student from a lower socio-economic background genuinely struggling to make ends meet and afford their education are two completely different experiences, and this difference is often overlooked.