The Speaker
Thursday, 13 June 2024 – 07:29

Opinion: Want to remove barriers to university? Help the middle classes

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

Many of you reading this will likely have recently applied for your maintenance loans for this year; others will likely be doing so in the upcoming years. Maintenance loans are partly means-tested. If your household income is above £62,212 over the past year, then you’ll be getting £4,168 if you live away from home outside of London. That means that the government expects your parents to give you £4,326 for the upcoming academic year to top you up to the maximum loan amount. This isn’t deducted from their tax bill, which makes it an even bigger burden.

The loan is also dependent on any income earned from investments such as property or shares; this may be a result of you working hard and investing, or being fortunate enough to be given assets by the generosity of your family, often without your input. This means for many that they are unable to get government help for things like prescription costs, further increasing the expenses related to study.

Furthermore, if you are from a low-income family (usually earning less than £25k/year), you are likely eligible for university funds, scholarships, and bursaries. A quick glance through the Complete University Guide’s table has revealed this is up to £5000 per year at Imperial College London and LSE and £5400 annually at Loughborough. This clearly demonstrates that universities do not expect the maintenance loan to cover costs associated with going to university.

This means not only are parents expected to top up the maintenance loan, but there is also an implicit expectation that they will provide more on top of that. However, for many parents, this extra expenditure is simply not possible, and there is no way to appeal this decision. This means that many students have to take term-time shifts, often to the extent that it is of detriment to their studies.

On a personal note, I live in Norfolk. My parents are both local government employees (itself by far not the highest paying profession), and do roughly 20,000 miles per year each; the vast majority of that is commuting. Being a rural county, equivalent jobs are few and far between, whether that be the public or private sector, and almost never are two in the same location. For reference, public transport or EV’s are not options for the vast majority in rural areas, including us. They also have to support my 12-year-old sister. None of this is considered regarding the maintenance loan — only what they earn as a household. They manage to top up the maintenance loan by tightening their belts to some fairly extreme measures; this impacts not only on their living standards but also those of my sister, an innocent party in this. Despite their endeavours, they can only afford to do this over a 12 month period, meaning that at least for my first year, I suffer a financial penalty as I do not get all of the money whilst I am at university. They are not able to offer any extra, never mind the amount given by the bursaries. This has made me feel exceptional guilt, to the extent of searching for ways out of university; I have taken on shifts to the extent that it has a major impact on my social life versus peers at polar ends of the financial scale, as well as the quality of my university work.

Furthermore, there is a gaming of the system in some key circumstances. I know multiple examples of people whose parents have divorced, they have registered with the lower-earning parent, and as a result, get full maintenance loan and financial assistance. In some cases, the lower-earning parent has mysteriously taken a lower-paying job. Miraculously, despite their apparent hardship, it doesn’t stop them going skiing each Easter. It does make me wonder, for the purposes of funding university living, would my parents be making a wise financial decision by living apart? Why should my parents and wider family suffer simply because their marriage has remained intact?

The only way to remove these issues is to grant the maximum maintenance loan to all, and remove bursaries for low-income students. If those bursaries are truly essential, then they should be given to all students, or the maintenance loan amount should be increased. No parent should be financially penalised for their child’s academic success. I do not advocate for a return of grants, or the scrapping of tuition fees — but if there are government loans available, then why should they not be available to everyone?

There is much talk of lack of social mobility in this country. The ultra-wealthy can afford to send their children to university, and the low-income households gain much financial assistance. My parents both went to university, worked hard to give my sister and I the best start in life that they could, provide a stable and happy home life, and now my whole family are being penalised by a system for those very reasons. I’m not the only person I know from hard-working middle-class families, those who are “just about managing,” who feel that they cannot afford to continue university. If I have been looking to leave once I’m there, I am sure there are many more who take one look at how the system is stacked against them and decide that they cannot afford to go. That is why the system must be changed with the utmost urgency. It is also why today it is the squeezed middle class who are facing increasing and often unacknowledged obstacles to better themselves and achieve upward social mobility.

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