Hollie Wickens discusses why Student Finance England is not fit for purpose, and how Covid-19 has exasperated its failings.
Could you live on an annual income of £9203 a year? That’s what the UK Government expects of English students. That’s the amount English students from the poorest backgrounds borrow to leave home, live in a new city, and study for a degree.
The English student finance system is a mess. We expect school leavers to enter the world as adults, yet the student finance system is built upon the assumption that their parents still pay some of their bills. £9203 is the amount English students from the poorest backgrounds receive - the government, in their typical generosity and understanding, accepts that these students’ parents cannot financially support them. But for everyone else, the maintenance loan is reduced based on a crude means test. Parental income alone determines how much an English student will receive in maintenance loan, with their parents expected to pick up the shortfall.
Can you fairly say that parents with an income of £40,000 a year and three other children can offer the same financial support to a child at university as parents on the same income and no other children? This kind of complaint is often branded middle-class whinging, but as Fabians and socialists we have to believe that all children deserve an equal chance to study, regardless of their background.
So what can students do? Many students in a normal year have to work alongside their studies, and there is nothing wrong with taking up part-time work. Yet Oxford and Cambridge completely prohibit their students from working whilst at university. They want their students to focus entirely on learning. Why should students from poorer backgrounds not be able to do the same? How is it fair for a working class student to work long warehouse shifts whilst their wealthier peers can dedicate their time to their studies?
But of course, very few students are working now because our society has shut down. Hospitality and retail, the most convenient sectors for students to work in, will not be able to operate as normal until the pandemic is over. If they were lucky enough to be in employment by 30th October, great! They’re eligible for furlough. But if they weren’t? If they were hoping for the usual Christmas temp work? Or even worse, if they’re a first year student who was told by their university how essential it was that they leave home and start paying rent to university residences because they may have an hour a week of face-to-face teaching? How likely do you think it is that these students found part-time work before that deadline?
The UK Government regularly boasts about its increase to Universal Credit - from meagre to slightly less so. People ineligible for furlough should apply for Universal Credit, Rishi says. And here’s the worst part: full-time students are ineligible for Universal Credit. Anyone not studying on an annual income of £9203 would qualify, sure. But this government seems to believe that students can photosynthesise, that they can live on an amount working adults cannot and don’t have bills to pay.
Our government is led by people who have never faced the reality thousands of students experience: the bank of mum and dad just doesn’t exist for everyone. Unless they recognise that, and quickly act to provide real support for full-time English students, we’ll be seeing a lot more students in food banks this winter.
Hollie Wickens is International Officer on the Young Fabians Exec. She is currently studying MA Politics and Contemporary History at King's College London
She tweets at @HollieWickens1.