Let’s talk about maintenance loans

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With tuition fees at the heart of political narratives surrounding students, the issue of maintenance loans is all too often swept under the carpet.

This isn’t to say that the prospect of being plagued by debt upon graduation isn’t a bleak one, but it’s time we recognise that maintenance loans affect students far more during their time at university.

Currently, we operate under a system whereby the most fortunate of students often receive upfront tuition and accommodation payments from their parents, leaving them without the burden of loan repayments after graduating.

Maintenance loans affect students far more during their time at university

Whilst this is surely symptomatic of a deeply engrained and manifest class difference, the recent leak of proposals to bar funding for students who fail to achieve three D’s at A-Level will surely only exacerbate a finance system encumbered with prejudice against those from less fortunate backgrounds.

For many, even at universities which rank low on league tables, a degree education offers the priceless opportunity to break free from these disadvantages, not to mention the inherent benefits of a more well-educated society.

It should not be assumed that students should be supported by their parents

However, it is not only those from less fortunate backgrounds who are left disadvantaged due to the current maintenance system. It seems nonsensical that as adults, students’ maintenance loans are based on their household income, and it should not be assumed that students should be supported by their parents in instances where a loan doesn’t come close to covering their accommodation fees. This does not take into account parental expenditure on factors such as mortgage or debt repayments.

Further, it assumes that parents who are able to help their children financially, would choose to do so; in many difficult and estranged family relationships, this support is simply not offered to children seeking to pursue higher education.

For many students, this flaw in the system means spending the university holidays working full or part-time, leaving them underprepared compared to those in more fortunate positions, who spend the holidays studying.

This is not to say that working is without many other benefits; bolstering résumés and learning about the dynamic of the workplace being just a few. Some might even see work as an important part of the university experience. When pushed beyond the fun of a part-time café job, on the other hand, many are left underperforming in areas where they could have excelled given the extra funding and the extra time.

Given that the number of students declaring mental health issues in Durham has risen by 94% over the past four years, it must be questioned whether the increasing financial, on top of academic, pressure at university is contributing to this decline in wellbeing for some.

The number of students declaring mental health issues in Durham has risen by 94% over the past four years

At Durham University, amidst rising accommodation fees, it will now set incoming students back £7,672 per academic year to live in catered college rooms. In order for a maintenance loan to sufficiently cover this cost of living alone, the household income of the student in question would need to be below £35,000, providing they don’t have other extenuating circumstances.

Any parents will surely understand that in a household which may be putting multiple children through university, £35,000 is soon stretched thin. Meanwhile, in order to qualify for the more substantial hardship fund of £2000 at Durham, household income must be below £25,000. Whilst this hardship fund is undoubtedly a lifeline for many less financially fortunate students, the system is flawed in several ways.

Firstly, students whose parents earn just over the £35k figure are left with just enough loan to cover basic accommodation costs, but without adequate support to help fund the many additional costs; a suit for matriculation, tickets to college events, and subscription fees to clubs and societies being just a few at Durham University.

Perhaps these extra costs are unique to collegiate institutions such as Durham, where there is little choice but to live in college accommodation during the first year of study, but they certainly go to exemplify that there are exceptions to the status quo. These are exceptions which surely have arisen elsewhere too.

Secondly, students whose parents earn say, £45k, are expected to fund both these extra costs and the remainder of the accommodation fees, a task especially difficult, as aforementioned, for families putting multiple children through the system, or who are dealing with extra outgoings not accounted for by basing payment on household income alone.

For students from lower-income families whose parents don’t quite qualify for the bulk of extra support available, the costs at universities such as Durham are surely enough to make people look elsewhere, to universities with cheaper accommodation.

It seems unjust when on the flip side of the coin, students whose parents are retired, but have thousands in savings, are able to receive much higher loan payments.

The costs at universities such as Durham are surely enough to make people look elsewhere, to universities with cheaper education

Meanwhile, the independent (and other non-state) school intake onto courses such as Classics and Music at Durham outweighs that from state-schools. Whilst there are undoubtedly exceptions to a correlation between private education and parental wealth, the question must be asked whether we are moving towards a two-tiered system where less fortunate students turn elsewhere, leaving ‘higher ranked’ and prestigious institutions such as Durham flooded with applications from students with higher household incomes.

This isn’t to say that students from financially fortunate backgrounds should be condemned, but rather that the maintenance system should work to put those from less advantaged backgrounds on a level playing field when it comes to financing accommodation costs and extra expenses at university.

With a recent change.org petition calling for the government to address the issue of maintenance loans standing at over 19,000 signatures, students are voicing their opposition before the maintenance problem becomes part and parcel of a university experience which, for many, is tainted by a financial pressure which stands in antithesis to the popular notion that university will surely be the ‘best days of our lives’.

In a system impeded by a disregard for those struggling to cough up funds for the hidden costs of a university degree, surely the popular turn of phrase stands true for some far more than it does for others.


Photograph: barnyz from Creative Commons via Flickr

@oscarelmon

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