Maintenance debt weighs on my mind as a poorer student

Why should working-class students end up with more debt than the better-off?

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.

Follow Guardian Students on Twitter: @GdnStudents. For graduate career opportunities, take a look at Guardian Jobs.


Kieran Winterburn

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Postgraduates: we need student loans

A lack of funding is making postgraduate study inaccessible, says Hannah Parker

Hannah Parker

30, Jul, 2012 @9:48 AM

Article image
Poorer students say maintenance grants 'essential' for university
Research by the NUS has found that most students with maintenance grants would not be at university without them

Abby Young-Powell

30, Jul, 2015 @9:53 AM

Article image
'Losing my maintenance grant means £80,000 of debt. It's daunting'
How will UK students cope now that living costs are no longer covered by grants? Guardian readers share their thoughts

Alfie Packham, Matthew Holmes and Guardian readers

03, Aug, 2016 @4:48 PM

Article image
Distance learning: the best of both worlds?

If you have money worries or work commitments, studying remotely can help you stay in education, writes Stéphanie Thomson

Stephanie Thomson

10, Jul, 2012 @1:24 PM

Article image
Are you a student affected by the loss of maintenance grants?
Grants worth about £3,500 will be replaced with additional loans – we want to hear from you if you are affected by the change now in effect

Guardian readers

01, Aug, 2016 @12:50 PM

Article image
Tuition fee refugees: you may be disappointed

Hidden costs mean studying abroad isn't always a cheap option

Kate Palmer

24, Aug, 2012 @9:22 AM

Article image
'My long-distance relationship wasn't cheap': students share budgeting tips
Surrounded by pizza, parties and convenient but pricey campus shops, unwary first-years soon find their finances draining away

Dulcie Lee and Guardian readers

27, Sep, 2016 @1:12 PM

Article image
Nudge, nudge: mind tricks to stretch your student budget
Simple changes to your behaviour can help you spend smarter at university

Imran Rahman-Jones

18, Sep, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
How do you spend your student loan?

Students often have a bit of a spending spree the day their loan comes through. But should they be forced to spend the money on prescribed items?

Will Coldwell

25, Apr, 2012 @9:15 AM

Article image
Are student unions worth the money?

Through their tuition fees, students can pay around £200 towards the cost of the union during their degree. Are they getting value for money?

James Sanderson

21, Mar, 2012 @10:54 AM