On Wednesday 5 December, the National Union of Students unveiled its major research project on student financial support, called “The Pound in Your Pocket”. Antony Mason attended the launch seminar at the Royal Society of Arts, London
“Many students are struggling to make ends meet, concentrate on their studies and stay the course, because financial support is systemically inadequate across both further and higher education.” So begins a major report by the NUS into student finance, based on a year-long research project that involved more that 14,000 students in further and higher education, and six student-union focus groups.
The results are now available for all to see on a dedicated website: www.poundinyourpocket.org.uk. The study has been broken up into 14 reports, all downloadable as pdfs.
The headline findings are worrying. The vast majority of students in further and higher education are anxious about their finances; 50% are in financial difficulties; and one-third have seriously considered abandoning their course as a result of financial pressures. A large number of students are working long hours to earn enough money to subsist on, with often detrimental outcomes not just to their studies and academic performance but to their wellbeing.
All this might come as no surprise to anyone who has looked at the kind of debt burden that most students now beginning courses in higher education will face: probably in excess of £42,000 – a sum that will take most qualified teachers, for example, some 30 years to pay off.
But the launch of “The Pound in Your Pocket” also pointed to some further, more nuanced consequences. From the platform, Dr Tessa Stone, Chief Executive of the Brightside Trust (which has as its mission to “connect, inform and inspire more young people to achieve their full potential through education”), spoke of the way that financial pressures are leading students to live at home and so choose local universities, and opt for course choices which may not actually be the best match for them – with high drop-out rates as a result.
Another panel member, Claire Callender (professor of higher education policy at Birkbeck and professor of higher education studies at the Institute of Education, University of London), pointed out her concerns about people that the research could not easily track down and analyse: “the missing”. How many people are now put off applying to university in the first place because of financial worries? And, among those who have already dropped out, to what degree is financial pressure the cause?
As Liam Burns (pictured above), National President of the NUS, put it: “Many students are trapped in their own personal austerity.” OK, so student life has always been one of scraping by, but clearly the new financial pressures –tuition fees as well as increasing accommodation and subsistence costs – seem now to be undermining, even blocking, the experience and benefits of higher education, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
And this is in an area of British life which, just a generation ago, was considered to be a vital and much cherished engine of social mobility.