Tuition fees. Since their introduction by the Labour Government back in 1998, they’ve constantly been on the political agenda. To increase, or to decrease, it’s not something that the politicians will ever reach an agreement on. But as we eagerly await the publication of this year’s general election manifestos, the way in which the parties choose to respond to the never ending great tuition fee debate will certainly be high up on our list of priorities when deciding who gets our vote this May. Yet the intensity of this debate, as important as it may be, appears to have detracted from the true cost that students face when coming to study at university.
Enter the underrated dark horse within the student finance debate: the maintenance loan. Consistently overshadowed by the tuition fee debates over the years, it has managed to avoid kicking up any sort of political fuss. However, the joint founder of Student Money Saver, David Ellis, believes that “tuition fees are no longer the problem”, it is instead the maintenance loan that is the culprit in creating the stereotypical image of the ‘strapped-for-cash’, student that it is all too much of a reality for many.
The posts across the University’s many unofficial Facebook pages say it all. Another notification. Another capitalised plea for you to sign up to Amazon Student or the latest graduate jobs portal. These posters are paid for each registration that takes place through their link. Their spam screams financial desperation. It appears that students are increasingly resorting to these ‘work from home’ schemes because, for one, the university timetable simply does not allow the time to commit to the irregular hours of retail employment. And more importantly, they simply don’t have enough money to see themselves through until the end of term.
It all comes down to ‘equal opportunities’. A notion that I am in complete agreement with. However, the pressure for universities to be ‘politically correct’ has allowed it to be blown way out of proportion. Whilst some students depend on their means-tested grants and bursaries to stay at university, many receiving them don’t just benefit from a little helping hand to help with living costs and study materials whilst at university, their non-repayable grants total an excessive amount, beyond what any higher earning parents would be expected to contribute towards their child’s university education. And increasingly, this excess is being frittered away on the latest designer trainers, expensive jewellery and all-inclusive holidays to Europe’s biggest clubbing hotspots, all courtesy of the British taxpayer.
It is truly shocking that two financial worlds so far apart can exist within the same university. Whilst one student thinks about planning their next beach break, another faces the constant worry about where the money for the next food shop is coming from. The £50 that a middle-income family may be over the bursary threshold by doesn’t make funding a child at university any easier, especially when there may be three or four more hungry mouths to feed back home, on what seems like a constantly tightening weekly budget. And when the Bank of Mum and Dad simply cannot afford to pay anymore, the promise of ‘equal opportunities’ for all within higher education is no longer fulfilled.
Our student finance system needs a rethink. It’s time to stop regarding those with a household income just over the current bursary threshold as ‘super rich’. No student should ever be forced into the dreaded ‘catch-22’ situation, where the degree suffers amidst their relentless attempts to fund it.