Are university students ‘Set up to fail’?


by Chief Executive, Michelle Highman 

Back in January, I wrote a blog for Respublica entitled Student Debt: Abandon All Hope? a slightly depressing piece on the impact of student loan repayments on our current students. The piece included the confident assertion that the current system, whilst it had its problems, did mean that no young person will be prohibited from getting a university education simply because they and their families can’t afford the tuition fees upfront. And whilst this is technically still true, our recent piece of research ‘Set up to fail: The reality of money management at university’ casts doubt on claims of access for all.

Our research sets out for the first time the minimum cost of university-owned accommodation at universities across the UK. Our analysis, based on over 150 responses to Freedom of Information requests from universities and Oxbridge colleges, sets out how students are being expected to part with large amounts of their maintenance support just for their halls and in some cases are simply not being left enough to live on.

At 28% of universities across the UK, the cheapest accommodation costs more than half of the maximum student support available for a student from England. At some universities, the cheapest accommodation took up two-thirds of the support. Leaving students who receive the maximum support, those from the poorest backgrounds, with as little as £40 a week to live on for everything else – food, clothes, transport, books etc. And that’s only if they are lucky enough to be allocated the cheapest accommodation. If not, the amount they are given to live on shrinks even further.

So it’s clear, that whilst there has been a commitment that tuition fees are capped at the rate of the tuition loan, no such guarantee exists for living costs. Without that guarantee, how can we truly say that no one is denied access?

Whilst, in some cases students could take on part-time work to plug the gap, in others, their universities do not permit them to. And even if you are allowed to take on paid employment, in some instances the amounts involved are so significant that you might need to work two days a week to make up the difference. Clearly not good for anyone’s studies!

The other solution – alternative forms of credit, is even more miserable. Student overdrafts and credit cards have been a normal part of the student experience for a long time now. But recently student payday lenders and other forms of alternative credit have cropped up. Frankly, even the benign overdraft can come back to bite once a student has graduated, and if we are driving students to max out credit simply to cover the basics then we are sending all sorts of negative messages about managing money and potentially simply setting them up to fail – both now and in the future.