Student finances – is the government doing enough?

By Ruby-Rae Cotter

Recent NUS Extra research has found that students are finding it increasingly difficult to cover just the basic costs of food and travel, with an average spend of £24.32 and £17.35 per week respectively. Just as worrying is the fact that as many as half the respondents were worried about affording essential course books and materials.

For many students with no source of funding outside of their maintenance loan as well as any grants that may be available to them, this results in a university experience tainted by financial worries, often burdening the time we are told will be the best years of our lives.

This is not helped by the fact that not everyone perceives student debt to be such a burden. People from older generations who have gone through university and its financial struggles themselves say it is nothing to worry about: student debt is what it is, and it is to be expected when studying. The government and similar institutions are not obliged to help out younger people more than they should, with some even claiming that grants offer unfair support, and are a disadvantage to middle-class students.

The key generational difference, however, is the lack of support provided to students who are facing an ever-increasing amount of debt. In many a student’s eye, the government is simply not doing enough to help its youth, leaving them with copious amounts of debt, the burden of financial difficulties, and a lack of support to turn to in times of trouble. Student finances are in a desperate state, and drastic action needs to be taken by the government.

I was in the highest category of support in First Year, but I still had difficulties with my finances. I had no money, and that was it.Freddie Drewer, recent Durham graduate

With so many students not receiving the amount of support they so need, numerous people turn to overdraft agreements. NUS found that 23% of respondents had used these services to extend their finances. Although not a solution, sometimes overdrafts can be the only saving grace for a student to survive at university.

For recent Durham graduate Freddie Drewer, the government are simply not doing enough to meet the needs of students:

“I was in the highest category of support in First Year, but I still had difficulties with my finances. When my loan and grant were cut by over £2000 in my next two years of university, I had no option but to arrange an overdraft, and still struggled to afford basic living costs, despite living in the cheapest accommodation furthest out of the city. I had no money, and that was it. The government should increase their general maintenance loan, providing a flat rate for anyone going to university just to afford basic living.”

It is obvious to most at university that the government does not do enough to support young people. Working class and ethnic minority students have a higher percentage drop out rate, something the new NUS President Shakira Martin aims to tackle in her campaign this year. In order for young people to flourish at university, and to be able to give back to their society in the future, there must be more support for those attending higher education, especially in the form of financial aid.

The very idea that overdrafts and student debt, and the financial worries that come with them, are to be expected of a university career is ludicrous. When students are already going to leave higher education with levels of debt totalling at least £57,000, it is easy to wonder what the point of attending university is as opposed to vocational higher learning, where young people are paid whilst receiving the opportunity to learn and gain similar, if not identical, skills.

The government should be doing more to help university students. We are pressured from a young age to go to university in order to improve our career prospects and future quality-of-life, even to just get the “university experience”. Why, then, is there such a lack of support, especially when more people than ever from more diverse backgrounds are going to university?

And so it has to be asked: are universities themselves doing enough to cater for the financial worries of their students, especially those from working class backgrounds? In Durham’s case, no. One of Durham’s primary problems is the rising cost of student living: annual rent costs have risen year-on-year in halls, way above inflation rates, with the cheapest college accommodation costing £5,336. For freshers, this is incredibly daunting, and can cause panic: the basic student loan won’t even cover your accommodation. How anyone is supposed to think about living costs on top of that? Durham University needs to be held to account for raising college costs through the roof. It needs to take the necessary action to avoid losing out on working class students who often work harder than their counterparts from more privileged backgrounds.

University is about higher education for the many, not the few. If you or someone you know is struggling with finances, speak to your welfare team at college, or go to student support.

In the meantime, if you want to see change happen with Durham accommodation costs, sign the petition here.

Photograph: TJStamp via Flickr and Creative Commons

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