As a white, working-class male, I was unlikely to make it into higher education. Yet here I am, studying for a degree in politics. And you know what? I don’t mind so much paying £9,250 a year for the privilege. Scrapping tuition fees has been the subject of fierce debate recently but for me, they’re not even the biggest problem.
What’s really unfair is the difference in the size of the debt that I will take on over the course of my degree, compared with some of my friends from well-off households. Those from the poorest 40% of families will graduate with an average total of £57,000 to pay back, after taking out a maintenance loan to cover their living costs. The richest 30%, meanwhile, will leave having borrowed £14,000 less. That is why Wednesday’s call for a rethink on student finance by Universities UK is so welcome.
Ironically, most of my friends are jealous of my maximum maintenance loan entitlement. Many students don’t seem to realise that a maintenance loan isn’t monopoly money. It will need to be repaid, and when the time comes I’ll see a much bigger number coming out of my bank balance than most of them.
It wasn’t always this way. Until only recently, students from homes with an annual income of less than £25,000 were given maintenance grants of £3,387 to help fund their living costs while at university. Students from households above this threshold were also entitled to a grant, but the amount they could be awarded decreased in accordance with their family’s income.
This all changed when they were scrapped last year. Loans replaced the grants, and we poorer students suddenly became a whole lot poorer. We’re now expected to borrow the money we need to live at university. Those who wouldn’t have been eligible for the grant in the first place were not affected by the change and saw no increase in their total debt as a result.
It’s true that my higher-rate maintenance loan helps me by paying my rent and feeding me every day, but in the long term it’s the grants that would have helped me more. The repayment of such a big loan will be a drain on my bank account for decades to come and is something that constantly weighs on my mind.
I’m not alone in these concerns. Sophie Vincent, a politics student at the University of Sussex, says: “I think the maintenance loan problem has been the bigger issue than tuition fees. If MPs really do want to encourage poorer students to go to university they need to address this first. I pay a premium for being poor under the current system.”
Kimball Wynn, an illustration student at the University of the West of England, is also worried about the future. “With some savvy budgeting, my loan allows me to live comfortably right now – which is great. But I know I will bear the full brunt of the loan after graduation. At the end of the day I’ve had the same education as everyone else – why should I have to pay more for it?”
Those people who most benefit from the current system need it the least, while the poorest students will continue to be hit the hardest. Reforming the maintenance loan system and returning to grants and bursaries is not only the best way to help students who need it the most – it’s the only way.
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