Students should receive minimum living income to overcome poverty, says report

Eleanor Busby
Students call for the abolition of tuition fees and an end to student debt at a protest in Westminster: PA

All students should receive a minimum living income from government to ensure financial pressures do not dissuade them from university or college, according to a new report.

Working-class students face higher financial barriers when trying to access post-16 education in England, the study from the National Union of Students (NUS) suggests.

Students from poorer backgrounds struggle to pay for food, heating, transport and accommodation, it says, adding that they can feel isolated as financial worries prevent them from taking part in social activities.

Compiled by the union’s Poverty Commission, it calls on the government to introduce a minimum living income to “provide security for students who experience financial precarity”.

The government should also restore maintenance grants for university students and nursing bursaries, it says.

It also calls for a rise in the minimum wage given to apprenticeship students, which currently sits at £3.70 an hour.

This should match £7.83, the national living wage for those aged 25 and over, the report states.

“Students face rising costs in a range of critical expenditure, notably transport, accommodation, childcare and course-related costs,” it says. “Increasing student income by increasing student loans is burdening generations with a time bomb of debt and putting too many off further study altogether.

“Student loans are recycled into extraordinary profits for landlords and bus companies while students experience poverty.”

Shakira Martin, president of the NUS, said: “Being born working class is one of the biggest barriers to education. The government claims to be improving social mobility and tackling poverty but so often forgets to recognise how inter-related poverty and class are.”

She added: “There is now absolutely no excuse for government and institutions not to act as the evidence shows that this problem is systemic and of the most serious nature. It is particularly concerning that large numbers of those who submitted evidence said they couldn’t afford heating and food.”

The report also calls on universities to offer practical solutions – such as deposit scheme or weekly payments – to help lessen the burden or course costs, and to provide affordable accommodation.

Professor Dame Janet Beer, president of Universities UK (UUK) and vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, said: “While progress has been made in recent years in supporting and admitting more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to university, there is still a long way to go. The decline in part-time and mature student entrants is also a clear concern.”

She added: “Universities UK supports the call to reinstate government maintenance grants, targeted to those students who need them the most. The government’s switch in England from maintenance grants to loans had a more significant impact on those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, who need to take out higher loans for living costs and so have higher lifetime loan repayments.”

Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, accused the government of ignoring students’ concerns about the cost of living and rising debt.

Speaking ahead of a debate on the new higher education regulator, the Office for Students, Ms Rayner said: “Instead of addressing students’ real concerns about the cost of living and soaring debt, ministers have sought to turn the so-called independent regulator into their puppet, pursuing their obsession with free markets and political pet projects instead of the sector’s best interests.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “No young person should experience barriers to their education – and our reforms to higher, further and technical education are going further than any before to make sure that every young person can fulfil their potential, whatever their background.

”We are seeing record rates of 18-year-olds, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, entering full-time university education and our reforms to apprenticeships are opening up more high quality training routes to young people from all backgrounds.

“We are determined to continue this progress – and our recently launched review of post-18 funding will consider how we can make sure students get more choice and value for money whatever form of education they choose.”