A flawed system: Student Finance needs to change


Students deserve better than the fundamentally broken Student Finance system

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Image by Student Finance/Graham Higgins

By Katy Leverett

Each year, almost every student who attends university is forced to deal with one of the most complex and archaic of systems: SLC, more commonly known as Student Finance England. Most of us will have had to go through the process of inputting our information, sometimes waiting on parents to input theirs, then waiting with bated breath to find out how SLC had managed to process their application incorrectly this time around. Admittedly, I do speak from personal and known experiences. However, whether it be waiting a ridiculous amount of time to hear back, or being given less on your maintenance loan based on parent or guardian’s income from two years prior, student finance is always an unnecessarily stressful and worrying experience.

I will be exploring the failure of Student Finance to support students in two parts: firstly, the lack of support from the company in the wake of the current cost-of-living crisis, and secondly, the flawed system that has operated for too long to supply students with their maintenance loan.

But before all of that, the most important failure of Student Finance is that they simply see students as a customer: nothing more, nothing less. Within the system of student finance, education is treated as a commodity. You are not treated as a student looking for an education; you are simply there to borrow money to pay for that education.

As a customer, therefore, you’d expect the whole system just to work a little better than it actually does. However, sadly, the administrative time to process a student finance application usually takes around six to eight weeks, which is a ridiculous amount of time for a student to worry about how they’re going to afford to live next year. This agonising wait is amplified by the current cost-of-living crisis, which has left a fifth of the UK in poverty, and because of which, according to the Guardian, one in ten students are currently using food banks.

Which brings me to my first point. Surely, you’d think that Student Finance would have done something to support students during this crisis with grants or bigger loans. The energy crisis has been a problem since the beginning of the year, meaning they’ve had enough time to plan for this. Yet they have done nothing, nor has the government given them the ability to do so except for a cursory increase in the maximum available loan from £9,488 to £9,706. There has been no support from Student Finance during this crisis to help support students with increasing rents, to help those whose bills are not included in their rent payments, or to just help students live. Whilst provision has been made by the government to help with energy bills for all households, this simply is not enough: it is no longer just energy prices that are soaring. Being a student should not mean having to worry about how you’re going to afford your next food shop. This has to change.

Whilst the University has made provisions to help students (from the £150 payments for student households to help with energy bills to YUSU’s 40p beans on toast initiative), these small actions are not enough. In order for there to be real improvement in a society with a rapidly deteriorating standard of living, the University cannot be completely relied upon: there has to be real change from the top, and that has to begin with Student Finance properly supporting students.

This problem could be resolved by fixing the fundamental flaws of the maintenance loan application process, which are currently making being able to live even harder for the majority of students. Whilst everyone is entitled to the same amount of tuition loan, the amount a student can claim in maintenance loans can vary greatly, and for most, this depends on their parent or guardian’s household income.

The way this is measured is questionable. Experiences with SLC are a testament to this: from receiving a maximum maintenance loan because their parents could afford to retire early, to receiving minimum loan on the assumption by SLC that their parents would financially support them when they in fact would not. No one has a simple relationship with the system and in some way either benefits greatly or loses massively. My own experience with student finance is complex but also means I, like so many others, have lost out in a system that makes generalised assumptions about the financial situation of students. A low maintenance loan also restricts students receiving support from other channels like the University’s accommodation bursary, which is based on information from student finance. Widespread change cannot be achieved until the student finance system is transformed. This is especially important in the current climate, or nobody’s going to come out unscathed.

It is clear that the Student Finance system has to do better, whether or not we are in a political, social and economic crisis. The time for change is now. We need to make the challenging time ahead for students a little bit more bearable and a little bit less stressful. Who knows, maybe students wouldn’t have to be worrying about their food and energy bills quite as much. It’s not a case of asking for it to be easy, just that little bit more fair, and that little bit more simple.

Writers note: if you are struggling with finances, don't hesitate to contact the University for support. The new cost of living ambassadors in each college can provide advice, and the university-wide finance team can be found at https://www.york.ac.uk/students/support/student-hub/ for more information and more pressing worries and concerns.