The painful underbelly of uni life

Gloria Moss from Buckinghamshire New University looks at the impact higher living costs and tuition fees are having on today’s students

It was the Labour Government which vowed in 2001 that 50% of young people should obtain degree-level education. That was at a time when university fees were capped at £1,000 per annum, a figure raised to £3,000 in 2004 and £9,000 in 2011. 

Speaking in 2009, Lord Mandelson, then Business Secretary, said that since fees were introduced: ‘Student numbers have continued to rise, along with the numbers coming from lower income backgrounds.” By the end of last year, Mark Corver, Head of Analysis and Research at UCAS, was saying that: “Young people in the population are becoming more likely than ever to go into higher education.”

This may be good news for institutions but what is the impact on young people? According to Julia Crooks, Advice Centre Manager for Bucks Students’ Union at Buckinghamshire New University, a university with a high proportion of students from a widening access background, three quarters of students are getting by well. She said ‘a lot of students are coping fine’ but she does have concerns regarding the 25% of students who she says have considered leaving university on account of financial difficulties.

Crooks should know since in February this year, a 550-person survey was conducted amongst students at the University and the results showed that over a third of students claimed not to have enough money to get through their university years. Moreover, over a quarter volunteered that that they had thought about leaving due to financial difficulties. In terms of the representativeness of the survey, it was conducted amongst the whole of the student body, not just those visiting the Advice Centre, and 54% of the cohort highlighted money-related issues.

The impact on learning? According to Crooks, the effect for the 25% who are struggling can be ‘disastrous’. The logic is impeccable as she paints the journey that befalls many students. She says: “When a student gets into a financial hole, if they don’t have help from family and friends, they have to do more part-time work. Unfortunately, doing this impacts on students’ ability to do their university work.”

The pressures on students is vividly summarised: “You have the landlord hassling you, utilities sending red bills and if your laptop breaks you have no money to replace it. When you are a student parent, this means that you have to spend long periods using the computers in the university library leaving you away from home for longer periods with severe impacts on childcare.” The worst case scenario? “Some students end up doing full-time jobs and do not come into the University at all,” added Crooks.

The irony is that political idealism could lead to this degree of difficulty. Are there safety nets? Each Students’ Union advisor has a £50 float which can be offered to students in need, used for example when a student with a young baby had no money with which to buy nappies. Students like this, with children, can also be referred to a local food bank and those without children can be taken to a food cupboard run by the University’s Chaplaincy Service.

One of the problems is the lack of experience young people have of money management. “Some students arrive and find a couple of thousand pounds in living cost loan or grant income and buy the things that they need without budgeting forward”, says Crooks.

A further problem relates to the dependency that students can place on their living cost loan or grant which can cause difficulties should it arrive later than expected. One way to pre-empt problems is to give Freshers talks on money management – the ‘money talk’ – introducing students to budgeting and how to make their money last longer.

In extremis, the University runs two hardship funds. The system is responsive with usually a two-week turnaround on applications but a change is expected for next year so there is uncertainty on what will follow.

There is much talk of the problems besetting newly-qualified graduates but Crooks’ insights reveal the immense challenges that students can encounter on the way.

Gloria Moss is Professor of Management and Marketing at Buckinghamshire New University.

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