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Student News

Working class students pay ‘poverty premium’, says NUS report

The report suggests all students should receive a minimum living income to tackle financial hardship at university. 

student protest tuition fees

The NUS Poverty Commission report has revealed that students from working class backgrounds face dozens of financial barriers when accessing education, creating a 'poverty premium'.

12 commissioners, drawn from the student body, student unions, universities, charities and campaigning groups, analysed written evidence and expert statements about the problems faced by students seeking post-16 education.

The report made a number of recommendations on how working class students can be better supported in England, including the introduction of a minimum living income and reinstating grant funding.

These recommendations come just weeks after the government announced it was reviewing post-18 education and funding in England, the outcome of which could see a big shakeup of the student finance system.

Following the publication of the report, current President of the NUS, Shakira Martin, told the BBC:

I believe the system as it currently stands is totally unfair. Students that are coming from working class and disadvantaged families, end up leaving university with more debt than those from middle class families.

A 'poverty premium'

students at university

One of the report's main findings is that students from working class backgrounds face additional costs - in Shakira's words, "poor students are penalised for being poor".

These costs can be both direct and indirect. For example, poorer students graduate with more debt and accumulate more interest on their loans. They're also more likely to turn to commercial loans for extra funding, and face higher interest charges on these.

Plus, the cost of access courses mean many students are forced to pay an extra year of fees.

The report also suggested that working class and black students were more likely to commute from home, and are therefore affected the most by rising transport costs and cuts to bus services.

When living away from home, working class students and international students often have more difficulty finding a guarantor needed to rent private accommodation, turning to private schemes with costly charges and interest rates instead.

The evidence showed that – in different ways, and not always intentionally – the result [...] is a ‘poverty premium’ endemic to further and higher education, which means that students from working class backgrounds often pay higher costs in order to access post-16 education as a consequence of class and poverty.

Financial barriers

how much could you be owed in student loan refund

The report outlined numerous ways in which many students, but working class students in particular, face financial hardship while at university.

It also discussed how working class students were more likely to turn to part-time work to fund their studies, often working in excess of the recommended 15 hours a week.

Findings included:

  • Student loan instalments are paid on a termly basis, as opposed to weekly or monthly, making it difficult for students to budget
  • Course costs are often not transparent, meaning students struggle to pay for resources further down the line
  • Working class students often cannot afford the cost of extracurricular activities, leading to social exclusion
  • The cost of renting in halls often exceeds what the maintenance loan allows
  • Disabled students are facing benefit cuts that limit their ability to study
  • Childcare funding is limited and there is not enough provision on campus.

As well as the direct financial difficulties working class students face, the report also discussed social problems.

Students from lower income backgrounds are more likely to feel like they don't 'belong' at university and are also more likely to leave their course before completion. Shakira explained:

All too often, the assumptions made about apprentices, learners and students stem from the middle class perspective of the people who run our institutions, and mean that working class students don’t see further or higher education as being for them.

These findings are similar to those uncovered by Save the Student's 2017 money survey. Of the 2,600 students we spoke to, 66% said the maintenance loan isn't enough, with students on average short of £221 each month.

While some may be able to rely on the bank of mum and dad to make up the difference, we found that a third of students aren't able to receive adequate financial support from their folks. One respondent commented:

Student maintenance loans should take into account the price of your rent, and it should cover your rent with some left over for food, in case a student cannot rely on parents for funds.

A minimum living income?

student housing living income

Credit: David Iliff - Wikimedia

The report put forward a number of potential solutions to the problems highlighted, but the main one is to introduce a minimum student living income.

Other reports have made similar recommendations in Scotland and Wales, where a new student finance system will provide all students with the same amount of money, but those from lower income backgrounds will receive more as a grant, rather than a loan.

Throughout the report, the NUS stressed that it's important to move away from education funding that saddles students with more debt, especially as working class students tend to be 'debt averse' - meaning they're more likely to be put off pursuing education by the prospect of debt.

Other recommendations included:

  • The reinstatement of grant funding, including maintenance grants, EMA and NHS bursaries
  • Means testing must be reviewed to create a fairer system
  • The apprenticeship wage should be increased to match the minimum wage
  • Student loans should be paid to students monthly or weekly
  • Universities should carry out full audits of course costs, including the cost of resources and accommodation, and look to reduce this as well as create more transparency
  • Universities should also provide extra support for students unable to find a guarantor.

The NUS hopes to work with the government and education institutions across the country to turn these recommendations into a reality. They also plan to expand their research to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as focusing in on specific liberation groups, postgraduate and healthcare students.

Do you agree with the NUS recommendations? Let us know in the comments below!

Jessica Murray

WRITTEN BY Jessica Murray

As an Editor of Save the Student, Jessica Murray has written extensively on student money news and money-saving tips. She was co-host of our podcast, No More Beans, and is now a journalist at the Guardian. Her tips and insights range from fun guides for freshers, to information for graduates entering the workplace.
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