The Big Fat Guide to Student Finance 2019
Student Finance got your head in a spin? Let us put you straight! We'll show you where the money is, how it works, how much you can get and how to get your hands on it.
Are Student Loans really all that bad? Actually, what even is a Student Loan? How will it impact your studies and your future? Is it even worth going to university anymore?
The chat surrounding Student Finance has got a bit out of hand. Get to the facts and you'll find it's all quite straightforward, affordable and accessible!
And facts is what this guide is about. Yes, Save the Student has campaigned against tuition fees for years but we are even more passionate about debunking the myths that stop young people following their dreams of going to uni in the UK. 🙂
How to use this guide
You don't have to read everything, or try to guzzle it down in one chunk:
- Only got a minute? Get the Student Finance essentials in 30 seconds.
- Got 5 minutes? That's enough to get answers to the big questions.
- Want it all? Keep reading for juicy details about real costs, hidden funding, and the truth about Student Loans.
Read what you can now and bookmark the page to pick it up later, if you're short of time!
What's on this page?
Student Finance in 30 seconds
- Student Finance (funded by the government) allows students from any financial background to go to university
- The Student Finance package includes a loan for course fees, plus a means-tested Maintenance Loan or Grant to cover living costs
- UK universities can charge up to £9,250 a year in tuition fees, but you’ll pay nothing upfront if you’re eligible for Student Finance (most students are) 😀
- You could get extra cash if a health condition, childcare costs or clinical placements leave you out of pocket while studying, or financial support if you're struggling to get by
- You or your parents may be expected to chip in for maintenance support (i.e., living costs). You’ll need to plan for this!
- Student Finance has to be paid back, but don’t let that put you off! Student Loan repayments work more like a graduate tax, which is far easier to manage after uni
- You only make Student Loan repayments once you’ve left your course AND are earning enough. Repayments flex with your salary, and stop altogether if your income drops too low
- Controversially, the Student Loan charges up to 6.3% interest each year until you pay it all back
- But crucially, many loans may be written off anyway before they’re fully repaid. If you’re not a big earner after uni you may only pay back a fraction of what you borrow from Student Finance
- For the most part, Student Finance is reserved for UK students, but if you’re from the EU – or meet other eligibility criteria – you may get some support
- Almost all students can get a bite at funding beyond Student Finance, from bursaries and scholarships to charity and corporate cash.
Student Finance FAQs
What is the 'Student Loan'?
Student Finance includes a mix of grants (which don’t have to repaid) and loans (which you do pay back). Your Student Loan is all the repayable funding you apply for – i.e., the Tuition Fees Loan and/or Maintenance Loan.
How much are tuition fees in the UK?
Most universities charge £9,250 a year for course fees. However, universities in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland charge less (or nothing) to students who already live there or are from the EU. Unfortunately international students almost always face higher fees.
How much Student Finance will you get?
The Tuition Fees Loan lets you borrow enough money to pay course fees in full, up to £9,250 a year (or up to £6,000 a year at private unis). How much you get for living costs depends on your household income and where you live while studying.
The maximum that most can apply for is £8,700 a year, though there’s a bit more on offer if you study in London or spend part of your course abroad. Many students will get less than the maximum, so it’s important to check for yourself!
Who can get Student Finance?
There are almost as many rules about who can get Student Finance as there are Subway sandwich combos.
You’ll also need to be a UK citizen (or have ‘settled’ status) and living here for at least 3 years before your course start date.
While EU students can apply for the Tuition Fees Loan, they won’t usually get help paying living costs. Rules and amounts also vary if you’re a part-time student, over 60, at a private uni, or claiming special circumstances such as refugee status. Contact Student Finance to flesh out the extra details for yourself.
What else do students have to pay for?
Tuition fees may hog the headlines, but for most students the key to surviving at university is planning for living costs.
These include accommodation, food, transport, textbooks, and anything else you need to stay alive and on top of your studies.
When should you apply for Student Finance?
You can start applying for Student Finance the spring before your course starts. You don’t need a confirmed place, so get in early to be paid promptly at the start of term. You can apply as late as 9 months after starting, but don’t wait if you need the money!
Either way, allow time to get your paperwork together, plus at least 4-6 weeks to hear a decision. It’s not as long-winded, but you’ll also need to reapply for funding each year of your course.
All the deadlines you need are right here.
What funding is available if you can’t get Student Finance?
Universities offer a mix of scholarships, bursaries, fee waivers and hardship (emergency) funds. Some charities, companies, councils and professional bodies also award grants and financial support: it’s possible to dig up hidden funding for everything from spiritual or ethical beliefs to what your parents do for a living.
If you can’t get – or don’t want – Student Finance, make sure your salary, savings, family support or other finance is enough to cover the cost of uni.
Will tuition fees go up or down?
Tuition fees have steadily gone up over the last few years, with some students landed with higher fees even after starting a course. Underhanded, yes – however, if you take the Tuition Fees Loan, price rises won’t hurt your future finances.
Monthly loan repayments after uni are determined by your salary, not by how much you borrow.
What’s the deal with student debt?
While Student Finance helps pay for university, it does usually mean graduating owing thousands. But because of the way repayments work, in reality many students will only pay back a small part of what they borrow.
Use your predicted graduate salary and monthly repayments to see if the loan is right for you, rather than fixating on what you’ll owe. In the meantime, you absolutely do need a plan to deal with everyday debt such as overdrafts, credit cards and other kinds of borrowing.
Can you afford university?
Only you can decide if university is affordable for you. There’s lots of funding out there, some of it ring-fenced to ensure poorer students aren’t left out.
How to contact Student Finance
To apply for Student Finance or ask how much you’ll get, contact the agency where you live (or where your uni is located if you're not from the UK):
Phone: 0300 100 0607
Website: Student Finance England
Phone: 0300 100 0607
Website: Student Awards Agency Scotland
Phone: 0300 200 4050
Website: Student Finance Wales
Phone: 0300 100 0077
Website: Student Finance Northern Ireland
How much does university cost?
Don’t get dazzled by big numbers! Tuition fees and living expenses run into £1,000s, but most of it is covered by Student Finance and isn’t the same as how much you actually pay.
Tuition fees in the UK
Here's the maximum that public universities can charge in undergrad tuition fees, depending on where you live when you apply:
|Students from||Studying in England||Studying in Scotland||Studying in Wales||Studying in N Ireland|
Remember that this is the most they can charge – individual courses may vary. Fees are also likely to be very different for overseas students, as there's no official maximum figure. Either way, check the university’s website or prospectus for details, or see the UCAS course catalogue.
Thinking about a year abroad? You might pay different fees while you're away. We've got the lowdown on that here.
What do tuition fees pay for?
Tuition fees pay for a lot more than just teaching. They also help cover buildings, services, staff, and hardship funds for struggling students.
While you don't get any say in how much universities charge, it's still worth checking they spend fees in the ways that most benefit you. That could be through more teaching time, a well-stocked library, cutting-edge facilities, career mentoring, or anything else that helps you get you a degree or a job after graduating.
Is it worth shopping around for cheaper fees?
As most universities charge the maximum for their country, most students won’t see much difference unless studying in Scotland or Northern Ireland is an option.
And, if you’re from Scotland, NI or Wales and want to study in England, remember that Student Finance will stretch to accommodate the higher course fees and living costs (don't worry – borrowing more won’t affect how much you repay).
It’s definitely in your interest to compare fees if you’re not eligible for Student Finance and/or are paying your own way – international students have the most to gain from this.
For most students, comparing local costs like rent, food and transport is the best way to see what’s affordable for you: here's how much students spend at each UK university.
At up to £9,250 a pop, you'd think tuition fees would see you fully paid up. They don't. You'll have to confirm extra course costs for yourself with the uni, but generally you’re looking at things like books, stationery, lab kit or art materials, field trips, printing and photocopying.
Allow for these when making your budget to avoid nasty surprises later on!
Some of these expenses can be covered by the Maintenance Loan or any bursaries and grants you're entitled to. Chances are, though, that you'll also need back-up from savings, your folks or a part-time job.
How to pay for university
Tuition Fee Loan
Apply to: Student Finance
Eligible full- and part-time students can borrow for the full cost of their course fees, up to £9,250/year (or up to £6,000 a year at private universities). This money isn't means-tested, so household income won't affect how much you get.
The maximum amounts apply everywhere in the UK. This means if you’re from Wales and opt to study in England, you'll get enough to cover the higher fees. However, you can’t borrow a bit extra on the side with this loan: it’s only for course fees and is paid directly to your university.
If you don’t take the fees loan you’ll need to make your own arrangements to pay tuition, either in full or in instalments.
In Scotland, note that even if you’re eligible for ‘free’ tuition you’ll still need to apply to Student Finance to ensure you don't get charged.
Apply to: Student Finance
The Maintenance Loan pays for day-to-day living expenses like rent, bills, beans and books. Unlike the fees loan, it's paid directly to your bank account once a term (monthly in Scotland) and you can spend it on anything you like – which is why you need to be clever about it.
The Maintenance Loan is partly means-tested. Everyone eligible can get some of it regardless of their financial situation, but to get the full allowance you’ll need to declare household income. For most students, that’s how much their parents earn.
These are the maximum amounts you can apply for this year in England. Don't forget this is what you could apply for, not what you'll definitely get!
Maximum Maintenance Loan 2018/19
|Household Income||Living at home||Away from home (outside London)||Away from home (London)|
Note that the higher your household income, the less funding you can apply for: the government assumes your or your parents will plug the gap!
NB: The numbers are different if you come from or are studying in other parts of the UK, or if you started uni before 2016. You'll also get slightly less money in your final year, because you won't be a student over the summer. Gulp.
Apply to: Student Finance
Grants are the golden ticket of Student Finance because – unlike loans – you don't have to repay them. How much you get depends on your household income and where you live while studying.
- In Northern Ireland, you could get up to £3,475 a year.
- In Wales you’ll get at least £1,000 a year, up to a max of £8,100 (more if you study in London).
- In Scotland, the Young Students’ Bursary awards up to £1,875 a year.
New starters in England can’t apply for the Maintenance Grant anymore: you’re now expected to take out a larger Maintenance Loan instead. If you started your course before 2016 and already get a Maintenance Grant, don’t panic: your funding will continue as long as agreed.
Special Support Grant
Apply to: Student Finance
In Wales and Northern Ireland, some less well-off students may be able to swap the Maintenance Grant for a Special Support Grant (SSG). You could be eligible if you receive certain benefits, qualify for Disabled Students’ Allowance or are a single parent.
SSG pays up to £3,475 a year in Northern Ireland, and up to £5,161 a year in Wales. Just like the Maintenance Grant, it’s means-tested, and doesn’t have to be repaid. Unlike the regular grant, it won’t reduce the amount of Maintenance Loan you can apply for, and won’t affect any benefits you get either.
Making the most of maintenance funds
- Maintenance funding is doled out in regular instalments, but you’ll need to make it last between payments. Rent or freshers’ week can hoover up an entire loan, so plan ahead!
- You need to register on your course before funds are handed over. That means you’ll get to uni before your loan, so bring cash to keep you going in the meantime.
- Including untaxed income – such as some savings interest / State benefits – could mean losing out on funding: our student tax tips explain how to work it.
- You can ask to be reassessed for funding if your household income drops significantly – keep it in mind.
Bursaries and scholarships
Apply to: your university
Almost all universities offer a selection of bursaries and scholarships. These are cash gifts you usually don’t have to repay.
Bursaries typically go to students whose household income is below £25,000 a year, though some universities cut off at £40,000 a year. There may also be awards for students leaving care, refugees, and those who pay or care for others. Payouts vary from book tokens and one-off awards to annual payments of £1,000 or more.
Scholarships reward talents or achievements such as exam grades, music and sport. Some universities also offer incentives to study particular courses, or for students from specific countries. Scholarships can be cash awards or tuition fee waivers (if you’re given a choice, cash is the better deal!).
Your own money
The parental contribution
Some Student Finance maintenance funding is means-tested: how much you get depends on your household income. If you’re financially dependent on your parents, that means their income affects your funding.
Crucially, the more your parents earn, the less Student Finance you’ll get, because the government expects them to contribute as well – this parental contribution calculator reveals by how much:
In reality, many students feel guilty about asking, don’t ask at all, or are left short because their parents can’t help. It’s definitely awkward, but it’s a conversation you need to have with your folks sooner rather than later:
- Can your parents afford to help you? Do they have any conditions about how you spend the money? Will you have to pay them back?
- If they can't help financially, how else could they support you? Don't underestimate the power of leftovers!
Show them our parents' guide to university if they need more info to make a decision.
Apply via: student banking
Borrowing without a plan is like jumping out of a plane with a Prada handbag instead of a parachute: it won’t end well!
A ‘plan’ means thinking about why you’re borrowing, comparing options (credit card, loan, overdraft, saving up), checking the total cost, and planning for repayments.
An interest-free overdraft is one of the best picks for students. Used the right way, they let you borrow cash for free (unlike commercial loans). Use them poorly, however, and you lose the benefit. Start with our student overdrafts explainer, then pick the best student bank account for your needs.
How to budget for uni
- Download our budgeting spreadsheet – it already includes the most common student expenses.
- List your monthly income: Maintenance Loan, grants, wages, tips, benefits, bursary, parental contribution and any other cash you’re expecting.
- Using your total income as a guide, estimate how much you’ll need or can afford to spend on each expense (here’s how much real students spend).
- Play around with the sums until everything fits: the aim is to never spend more than your monthly income. If you need to, find ways to earn more or spend less.
- Keep a daily record of your spending, and keep comparing it to your budget. A notebook will do, but a budget tracker makes it a doddle.
Extra sources of funding
Support for parents and carers
Apply to: Student Finance
If you’re responsible for looking after someone else while studying, you could be in line for bonus cash. The funds below cough up £1,000s each year, though your payout will depend on your household income. Once you get the cash, it’s non-repayable.
- The Parents’ Learning Allowance awards cash to students with dependent children. In Scotland, it’s a Lone Parents’ Grant – i.e., for single, widowed or divorced parents.
- As you might expect, the Childcare Grant helps pay for a childminder, nursery or other childcare fees. In Scotland, money is handed out directly by the university and is a limited pot – so you’ll need to apply early.
- An Adult Dependants' Grant provides cash support if you’re financially responsible for another adult, for example, as a carer. Awards are means-tested, either by your household income or the person you look after.
While these funds are mostly for full-time UK students, who can claim (and how much) varies around the country. Cash is bundled in with Student Finance, so you’ll need a UK bank account to get paid.
Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA)
Apply to: Student Finance
You could get DSA if you have a disability that causes you extra costs while studying. ‘Disability’ includes mental health problems, unseen conditions (like epilepsy) and learning difficulties (such as dyslexia) as well as long-term physical conditions.
You'll need to provide evidence or be assessed, but then there’s cash to pay for specialist equipment, a non-medical helper, a general allowance and travel expenses.
How much DSA could you get?
|Type of student||Specialist equipment allowance (whole course)||Non-medical helper allowance (per year)||General allowance (per year)|
|England (full-time)||Up to £5,529||Up to £21,987||Up to £1,847|
|England (part-time)||Up to £5,529||Up to £16,489||Up to £1,385|
|Northern Ireland (full-time)||Up to £5,266||Up to £20,938||Up to £1,759|
|Northern Ireland (part-time)||Up to £5,266||Up to £15,703||Up to £1,319|
|Scotland (full-time)||Up to £5,160||Up to £20,520||Up to £1,725|
|Scotland (part-time)||Up to £5,160||Pro rata*||Pro rata*|
|Wales||Up to £5,332||Up to £21,181||Up to £1,785|
DSA isn’t means-tested and is non-repayable. Accepting other disability related grants or support can affect whether you get DSA, so talk it over with your uni or Student Finance office first.
Apply to: various
Taking the time to search for less obvious funding is where patience pays off! Try these on for size:
- There are bursaries and scholarships beyond those handed out by universities, along with specialist scholarships most students never hear about.
- If you're studying for a healthcare related degree (including medicine), you could be eligible for an NHS Bursary. Check out the NHS' info on the funding here.
- Travel grants are for grabs if you study part of your course abroad, or you’re a medical or dental student and have clinical placements in the UK. Contact Student Finance about these.
- Universities usually oversee bursaries for care experienced students, but in Scotland, a bursary and accommodation grant is handled by Student Finance Scotland.
- Crowdfunding – where you ask strangers to invest in you – is an option if you have a good story to tell.
- The Turn2us grants checker lists charity funds you may be eligible for. Tip: toggle each of the search options in turn to see what else comes up.
- If you’re taking time out from a job (and expect to go back after uni) talk to your employer about cash support or sponsorship.
- Most students can’t usually get benefits but check for yourself if you have special circumstances or are really struggling. Try the StepChange benefits calculator.
A sponsored degree, where a company pays for your studies, is a sizeable commitment rather than a bit of extra cash. You may be expected to work for them during and after your studies, in exchange for wages plus (often generous) study-related expenses.
You might need to sift through several company websites – try their recruitment pages – to track down opportunities. Alternatives, ask your careers’ adviser or search online for ‘Degree Apprenticeships’.
Apply to: various
If you run out of cash after starting your course, ask your university or students’ union about hardship funds (emergency grants or loans for students).
Each uni sets its own criteria for who can apply and how much they’ll get. They may also want to see copies of your Student Finance letters and your budget before handing over any cash.
While banks aren't the first place to turn for a cuddle, learning the right way to use an overdraft could save your bacon in a crisis.
Student Loan repayments
You only repay the Student Loan if you earn enough
Student Loan repayments kick-in the April after you’ve left your course. However, you only make payments when you earn MORE THAN:
- £18,935 a year in Northern Ireland and Scotland, or if you started uni before 2012 (i.e., you have a Plan 1 loan)
- £25,725 a year in England and Wales (i.e., you have a Plan 2 loan)
If you don't earn more than this, you won't make repayments. This includes if your salary drops later on or you become unemployed. If that happens, repayments stop until you’re back over the earnings threshold.
You’ll carry on making monthly repayments (as long as you earn above the income threshold) for around 30 years, until either you pay back the whole amount or the loan is cancelled.
You’ll probably see your salary increase several times during the lifetime of your loan. That’s a good thing! However, there’s a good chance you’ll be making the largest repayments by the time you want to buy a house or are supporting a family of your own – just something to be aware of.
Repayments are taken from your wages
Repayments are automatically docked from your wages before you get paid – you don’t have to go hunting for the cash or remember to pay on time. The calculation will be shown on your payslip: just check the numbers and hang onto the paperwork in case you need to query anything.
If you’re self-employed, you’ll make repayments along with any income tax you owe by filling out a self-assessment tax return once a year.
How much will you pay back each month?
You don’t make repayments on your full salary. Instead, you pay 9% on anything you earn above the threshold. This is a crucial detail, as it means monthly repayments may be far more manageable than you fear.
How repayments are calculated
If the income threshold for your loan is £25,725 and you earn £26,725 during the year, you pay 9% on the extra £1,000, i.e., £90. You pay this in monthly instalments, so that £90 becomes 12 monthly repayments of £7.50.
The table below shows what your monthly repayments could look like. Because the money is usually taken before you get paid (i.e., weekly or monthly), the actual amount could vary during those months when you earn a bit more or a bit less.
Monthly Student Loan repayments in England and Wales
|Salary||Plan 2 monthly repayment|
Monthly Student Loan repayments in Scotland and Northern Ireland
|Yearly salary||Plan 1 monthly repayments (6th April 2019 – 5th April 2020)|
Remember these are just guide figures! There’s more info, including full UK figures, in our Student Loan repayments cheat sheet.
The Student Loan is written off after 30 years
Any Student Loan you haven’t paid back after 30ish years gets written off. Any remaining balance is erased, monthly repayments stop, and you can finally unclench your buttocks.
When exactly you hit loan wipeout depends on which part of the UK funds your studies, but it’s typically either when you turn 65, or once you’ve had the loan for 25 year or 30 years, whichever happens first.
The biggest consequence of loan cancellation is that – in combination with flexible repayments – many students won’t pay back the whole loan.
While this sounds fabulous, predicting whether you’ll wipe out or be stung for the full amount (plus interest) isn’t an exact science:
- For an idea when you might start repaying your Student Loan, check the average starting salary for your degree.
- To check your chances of repaying the whole amount, plug your expected starting salary into our Student Loan repayment calculator.
Student Loan small print
Remember: it doesn’t matter how much you borrow, or what happens to interest rates. The only thing that affects the size of your monthly repayments is how much you earn after uni.
The Student Loan charges interest
Just like any other loan, the Student Loan adds interest onto your balance. The interest rate is tied to how the economy performs and can go up or down. The figures are updated every September, but currently:
- For students in Scotland and NI, interest is 1.75%.
- In England and Wales, interest varies between 3.3%-6.3% depending on whether you’re still studying or how much you earn (if you’ve left uni). Interest defaults to 6.3% if you don’t keep your details up-to-date.
Added interest means you’ll end up owing more money than you originally borrowed and could take longer to repay. While that may sting a little, keep in mind that whether interest goes up or down makes no difference to your monthly repayments or whether you pay it all back.
‘Income’ includes more than salary
Your income after graduation decides how much you repay to your Student Loan each month.
You’re probably used to thinking of income as wages from a job, but it includes other sources of taxable income, including bar or restaurant tips and some State benefits. It’s worth keeping an eye on these, as they could nudge you over the salary threshold when you’re not expecting it, or bump up your payment amount during some months.
A Student Loan WON’T affect your credit rating
Your credit score is a really valuable number that determines whether you get the best deals on credit cards, loans, energy bills and even mobile phone contracts. Thankfully, owing money on a Student Loan won't affect your credit score.
However, because monthly repayments come out of your wages, it could have a small effect if you apply for a mortgage later on (as banks use take-home pay to see how much you can afford to borrow).
Repayments don’t stop if you leave the UK
Moving abroad after uni – whether for a few months or for good – doesn’t mean you can forget about your Student Loan!
Living or working overseas may change your income threshold, so you’ll still need to stay in touch with the Student Finance office and keep up with repayments. Repaying your Student Loan from abroad explains what to do.
You need to stay in touch
Like a particularly nosy relative, your Student Finance office wants to know what’s happening with you. You’ll need to tell them about obvious changes like your phone number, address, household income and bank account, as well as less obvious life events like getting married, moving abroad or working for yourself.
Not updating your details may mean missing out on funding at uni or, if you’re overpaid, having to pay back the extra. Not replying to emails or passing on info after uni could even mean being charged higher interest rates or even penalty fees.
Repaying early could be more expensive
You can choose to clear your student debt or make higher repayments at any time. This might be tempting if you want to be free of your loan asap, but it’s usually only worth it for higher earners (i.e., those with a starting salary above £30,000).
For everyone else, it could mean paying back more than if you’d let the loan run its natural course. Plus, once you funnel extra money towards your loan, you can’t get it back later on (i.e., if you’re skint or want to spend it on something else). Think it over carefully and only pay-up when you can afford to.
Warning: The terms aren't set in stone
Shockingly, the Student Loan’s terms can be amended even after you’ve signed the contract. Interest rates are the obvious example, but the earnings threshold and even loan wipeout can be tweaked or dropped at will.
The last time this happened, the government backtracked on a promise to increase the salary threshold to take the pressure off repayments, and only reverted to the original agreement after a lot of noise from Save the Student and other campaigners.
It’s impossible to know exactly how political gestures like this will play out. In the meantime, we’ll always report what’s going and keep this guide updated.
You may have to repay grants if you drop out
Each year, some students will find uni just isn't the right call, or that money or personal issues make it impossible to carry on. If that's you, don't throw in the towel until you've talked it over with a uni advisor or the Student Finance team.
In particular, be clear about if and how you have to give back any non-repayable funds, such as grants and bursaries. Dropping out may also nix your chances of getting Student Finance again in the future.
The other time you might have to repay free funding is if you bodge the numbers on your application (or don't update your details) and end up getting overpaid. Keep an eye on it!
5 tips for slashing student debt
Sniff out hidden funding
Hundreds miss out on free money each year because they don't know it’s there or assume they’re not eligible – yet almost all students have a shot at extra funding.
Avoid unnecessary borrowing
When you can afford to pay it back, borrowing is perfectly safe. Yet it’s very easy to slip up, so don’t touch credit cards, loans or even a 0% overdraft without a plan. If you’re using credit to cope with hardship or cover up other debts, read this first.
Make cash on the side
Don't lose out on tax
Not knowing how tax works can leave you poorer. For students, that’s typically because they overpay income tax or under-claim Student Finance. Our 5-min read on student tax tips will help you get what’s yours.
Be money minded
It doesn’t matter how much money you have coming in if you treat it like a bottomless refill. Always plan how to spend your wages, then make the most of every single pound by paying less for everything.
Now you've got your head wrapped around Student Finance, see what other student funding you may be able to bag to support your studies.