Student finances: ‘Can’t pay, won’t pay’

The government has revealed in advice to students this week that they must make up themselves any shortfall in their ‘means tested’ student maintenance loan. This means taking a part-time job or asking their parents. The idea is based upon a comfortable and naïve notion that families support their children. In doing so, it ‘bakes in’ unfairness and inequality into the much lauded ‘student experience’. My experience in Higher Education was that many families are over stretched and ‘can’t pay’. Others simply ‘won’t pay’ and their student children must fend for themselves.

An apparently innocuous snippet of news came from the Guardian yesterday and seemed to state something obvious to all students and parents. That is the ‘Implicit’ need for parents to top up student loans to be made clear’

However, the story itself revealed for the first time that the official policy of the government is most students are expected to make up any shortfall in their income from other sources such as part-time work. It signals a clear acceptance that the experience of university and chances of success are inherently unequal.

Forcing the government’s hand.

Martin Lewis and the MoneySavingExpert (MSE) has gained a result in forcing the hand of the government to make it clear that students may have to find their own maintenance income. Higher and Further Education Minister, Michelle, Donelan, is reported as stating, in a response to  the MSE, that there will be more advice from the Student Loans Company (SLC) about how students can make up shortfalls in their maintenance funding. She states, “We will ask the SLC to make clear that this additional funding might be from several sources, which may include from a student’s parents or household members where applicable …”  So far, this is nothing that most families and students haven’t already worked out.

But there is more to this story.

The advice on the government www site, Understanding living costs while studying at university or college – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk), about student loans was indeed updated on Monday as a result of the concerted pressure by Martin Lewis of the MSE over time. They reported that, ‘The Government will at last tell students in England about the university ‘parental contribution’ following an MSE campaign’.  This was in a letter from Donelan to the MSE.  Its significance is not so much in the advice to be given for those going to university in 2022, but in the admission that most students cannot access a full maintenance loan and must find other means or seek help from their families.

Martin Lewis began the campaign for more acknowledgement of this because his TV roadshows had found “students living off cold baked beans, because parents believe the loan is enough for them to live on and they should be independent – not realising that their incomes meant the amount received was half what’s deemed to be the true living cost”.

Firstly, I am quite partial to cold baked beans, maybe since I was a student, who knows?

Secondly, I found in my long experience that most students were more than aware of the shortfall and that they needed more income. They were living the consequences after all. Some were very grateful for family help, others found that their parents ‘can’t pay’ or ‘won’t pay’. They scrabbled about in various part-time jobs, some for over twenty hours per week.

Coincidence or good timing.

The response from Donelan could have been timed to signal that loans are here to stay in any reforms to be announced soon. But families must do their bit for students as there will be no more concessions in any upcoming ‘shake up’.  It is doubtful if enforcing payments from families for their adult offspring would work.

Or it could be that she had seen the episodes of the drama ‘Showtrial’ on the BBC and only just realised that some students with well-off parents sometimes get no financial help and turn to other means such as ‘sex work’ as the alternative. This is not a hypothetical scenario, it is a real issue (28th December 2018 ‘Mind the Gap: University students under increasing financial pressure’).

Endorsing an unequal higher education system.

The advice from the government is now very clear and signals that higher education is not expected to be an equal experience for all students. Students suffering a shortfall in their finances are “expected to make up the difference between the Maintenance Loan amount available to them and their total living costs”. This expectation has serious consequences that should be addressed.

The hope is that “Financial support may be provided by the student’s parents or partner”. But “there are several other sources of funding available for students who don’t have access to household support………These could be: part-time employment, savings, university bursaries and scholarships, Local Authority support such as the Higher Education Bursary”.

The only support offerings not ‘means tested’ (to me this signifies testing how mean the funder is) are part-time employment and the mysterious savings some might have. It becomes the default position of a significant number of students. This is because students with parents earning over £25,000pa find a deceasing amount of loan available to them. Currently the median pay of full-time workers in the UK is around £30,000pa (ONS Employee earnings in the UK: 2021).  Even the maximum maintenance loan of £9,488 (outside London) for those from below the family earning threshold means a shortfall of around £3,000.  The government advice agrees  “For some students even the maximum amount of Maintenance Loan may not be enough to cover all their living costs”.

Now add the likelihood of there being siblings of a similar, or even the same age and it becomes clear what will happen for families already stretched supporting a home and family with rising costs.

The government advice even goes as far as explaining with a ‘typical example’ that is indeed common in my experience.  They observe that ‘Olivia’ at Newcastle University has been offered a sub-optimal £8,130 Maintenance Loan based on her parents £35,000 pa income. Then she “has estimated that she will need around £12,000 to cover her accommodation and living costs which means she will need to find an additional £3,870 to cover all her living costs”.  Then it simply notes “To make up the difference, Olivia will ask her parents for financial support and look for part-time work”. Simple, it seems as she might only need to find around fifteen hours work per week during the term (40 weeks) at the current 2021 minimum wage. They don’t explain that Olivia might have brothers and sisters or that she might be a twin.

Indeed, many students find they have to resort to this because of pressure on their family, and universities have little notion about who they are and for how long they are working (TEFS 28th December 2018 ‘Mind the Gap: University students under increasing financial pressure’).

The reality for students is a lack of ‘time’ as the most important resource.

This has been well documented, and a significant number have part-time jobs. TEFS has highlighted this on many occasions as a key problem and a bottleneck for progress.  The impact on success and attainment at university is obvious.  Students commuting and carrying caring burdens are also affected, many commuting and holding down jobs.  It all adds up to a lack of the most important resource ‘time’.

See:

The dilemma for universities and staff.

One way to deal with the obvious inequality embedded in universities is to simply turn a blind eye. Indeed, it seems nearly all universities have no formal data or idea about how many students are affected by loss of study hours to part-time work. A freedom of information request by TEFS in 2020 was reported in the Guardian ‘University students who work part-time need support – or they will drop out’ (also TEFS 16th June 2020 ‘University student part-time working is a dangerous blind spot’). 

However, this doesn’t appear to affect the majority of students with around 64% not employed in term time (TEFS 27th July 2018 ‘The vast majority – one million – of students have no employment when in full-time studies’). They are well-off or surviving on cold baked beans. The other 30-40% must be finding it hard to juggle time. This is because time for study is a vital resource to make a success of university and it is not evenly spread across the student population.

As a lecturer it became increasingly obvious over recent years that a significant number of my students had much less time to study than others.  I know this because I taught 200 to 300 and more first year students every year for over thirty years and they simply told me this. I have many stories of the struggles my students endured.

It presents a dilemma for anyone keen to treat everyone equally.  Setting an assignment with a strict deadline, that the university management insisted upon, meant many students simply had less time to complete it. The dilemma is balanced between making the assignment less difficult or easier to complete or accepting the unfairness in the system. Like my colleagues, I chose to keep to a consistently high standard but offered more and more support for any student seeking advice about juggling their time. With all funding options exhausted, sometimes it was best that they withdrew from the university.  This made me increasingly uncomfortable. It was also eating into my time for research and led to very long hours. While many staff did their best, other staff simply looked the other way and accepted there was little they could do. Some were even less tolerant. At a student support meeting outside of my university, I heard one delegate suggest that they should not go to university if they cannot afford it. So much for support. This attitude is mostly hidden but is probably more common than people like to admit.

The conclusion is that the system is designed to be unfair to many students. Universities are limited in what they can do about it. Those students with better-off families get the full ‘student experience’ and reap the rewards. Those with hard working parents and siblings get a raw deal and the ‘experience’ is exhausting and difficult. Many parents simply don’t pay to help their adult offspring and the inequality is just accepted. Some students find their parents do not declare their earnings or they find they are estranged from their family through no fault of their own (as highlighted by the charity ‘Stand Alone’ and their increasingly effective ‘Stand Alone Pledge’ campaign in universities). Universities are expected to pick up the pieces and this falls onto individual academic staff and hard-pressed student support services. That signals to me that the system is broken.

The hapless Giovanni in Dario Fo’s political farce, ‘Can’t pay Won’t pay’, set in Milan in the 1970s finally gets the point and concludes “What is this? They’ve been giving us the run around all day. I’m not running any more”.

Leave a Reply