Show Hide image

Budget 2015: For too many poor students, getting to university is just half the battle

It’s not so much the getting to university as it is the staying there. The surviving.

How to put a price on education? My debt, which comprises solely of maintenance loans, (mercifully as a low income student my fees were covered) currently stands at a cool £32,000, a figure that I try not to think about too much, lest it provoke a panic attack. Had maintenance grants not existed, as will soon be the case following this morning’s budget announcement, it would undoubtedly be more.

It’s hard to tell what impact this added burden might have on a graduate - so many of us are in denial about our student loans, refusing to see them as proper debt, and I don’t see how future graduates would be any different. “It’s a graduate tax” we tell ourselves, though the statements through the door and the stubbornness with which the figures, thanks to interest, barely seem to change, tells another story. What, I suppose is, another three grand or so on top?

The impact of these measures on a poor student while at university  however, involves far less need to embrace denial. I know the daily struggle to keep your head above water only too well.

Of course, the news that maintenance grants for poorer students were to be scrapped in favour of more loans was accompanied by the usual disclaimer - that the introduction of tuition fees hasn’t deterred low income students from applying to university. This, I suspect, is largely to do with the national shift in mentality when it comes to debt. To generations before ours - including those that benefited from free educations - borrowing such large sums of money at such a young age was unthinkable. Now that we live in a lending culture, however, in which everyone’s at it, I suspect enormous student loans are less intimidating, but that doesn’t mean that low income students are then suddenly catapulted onto a level pegging with their contemporaries. It’s not so much the getting to university as it is the staying there. The surviving.

I’ll never forget the day that my mother handed over the student loan documents for me to sign. It seemed like such a momentous decision - had I made the right choice? Was it worth it? I was terrified. It was more money than I’d ever thought about before.

The run up to university was no different. I’d lie awake into the early hours, worrying that I couldn’t afford it. Every decision was loaded with stress. I chose the cheapest accommodation available but worried that I would be allocated elsewhere. I balked at the lengthy reading list of expensive textbooks. When I finally got there, I reeled from how costly everything was. When I ran out of money halfway through the second term, a relative commented snidely that I’d been having trouble budgeting. I reddened with shame. I wanted to say that, far from being overspending, it was simply a case of not having enough money. But I didn’t bother - they were comfortable, and wouldn’t get it.

I have no doubt that without my maintenance grant - not to mention the university’s hardship fund - I would have packed it all in. My whole time at university was one of extreme financial anxiety, and it profoundly affected my studies. I worked throughout my degree, often in bars where I wouldn’t finish until four or five in the morning. I was exhausted and stressed. £1000 a year, or around £333 a term might not sound a lot to some people, but it made a huge difference to me.

It isn’t just about the money, though. The people at my university were very privileged. It was the first time I’d met people who used “summer” as a verb, who quizzed you on what school you went to. They invested their student loans - money I would have starved without. As with the media world in which I now work, I didn’t feel as though I belonged. Amidst these feelings of insecurity, the maintenance grant felt like the government’s way of saying that it knew this, but that it wanted me there. That despite my poverty I had something of vital importance to add to the mix - intellectually, culturally - and that the mix was lucky to have me.

I needn’t carp on about the inherent irony of a generation that benefited from free higher education continually making it more expensive for its successors. They may kid themselves that their actions are justifiable because poor kids will continue to go to university, but what also matters is their wellbeing once they get there. Your time at university is supposed to be a period in which you embrace education and exploration, years as intellectually challenging as they are carefree. I feel that I missed out on much of this because of financial constraints and have no doubt others feel the same. I guess you spend so much of your time being grateful to be there that you never actually get to really, properly be there at all.

The fewer barriers there are to poor students being able to embrace and enjoy their educations, the better. This will, I’m sad to say - provide yet another hurdle over which prospective students need to jump. Perhaps tonight there will be a kid out there somewhere, lying awake because of this.

Even now, four years after graduating, I can’t help imagining I had attending university in a world in which it had been easy. Not in terms of the syllabus, of course, but in terms of simply being there. Now that; that would have been a kind of freedom.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media. Her new novel, The Tyranny of Lost Things, is published by Sandstone Press.