Stop insulting students from low income backgrounds with “equal opportunity” rhetoric

Stop insulting students from low income backgrounds with “equal opportunity” rhetoric

Sophie Berry looks at the government’s empty rhetoric aimed at appeasing students from lower income backgrounds

The recent announcement of government plans to freeze tuition fees until 2019 were, at best, met with apathy among students. After students saw fees increase astronomically from £3,000 to £9,000 in 2012, was it really any surprise that the ‘news’ left many students insulted by another desperate grab to gain young people’s support? This ‘news’ was coupled with plans to raise the student loan repayment earning threshold by £4,000. Admittedly, this policy is likely to finally provide some let up for lower earning gradates in the future. However, reports of a ‘revolution in education policy’ is simply laughable.

Attempts to appease students with seemingly benevolent policies has been received by many as, quite rightly, a slap in the face. These proposed reforms are out of touch with the crippling financial implications that many students face every day. By drawing attention to tuition fees, politicians are shying away from the most important issue students face. The reality of living in the capital is an issue much more urgent than that of finding employment after graduating or earning anything close to the repayment threshold. Rather, the immediate nightmarish worries lay in the price of rent, food and travel, just to name a few of the hidden costs of life as a student. Of course, this is a national problem among students, yet there is no example more striking than the real cost of being a student in London.

To rub more salt into the wound, the Conservative party conference gave a nod to ‘reviewing’ student funding. Not reinstating, not restructuring. Reviewing. Perhaps to speed up the reviewing process, politicians may benefit from speaking to students from lower income families. I am sure that these students would be more than happy to ‘review’ the stripping of their maintenance grants. Or perhaps ‘review’ their hour-long commute to or from central London during rush hour, as a result of not being able to afford the rent prices. Maybe even catch them as they clock off of their evening and weekend shifts after which they can ‘review’ their relentless part time jobs; for many an income which they could not survive at university without.

When you speak to them, you’ll most likely learn that their means tested loan does not come close to covering what they need to live in London. In all honestly, it does not take extensive research to learn why this is the case. The maximum a student in London can receive is £10,702, and here we must bear in mind this is only the case for students whose parents earn less a combined income of £31,000. The average household income for working class families (both parents in non-professional occupations), is £33,000. For most working-class families who earn just over this threshold, the loan drops down to £9,503.

Okay, so that doesn’t sound so bad; that is quite a lot of money, I hear you say. But if we break down a student’s average weekly outgoings you’ll find that for students whose parents cannot ‘top up’ these loans, the real cost of university is staggering. On average, accommodation and basic household bills come to no less than £180, food at least another £15 and travel (as even this extortionate rent only allows for a place about half an hour out from central London), adding another £10 at least. This means that without factoring in any book/stationary costs, social events, society fees or other aspects of student life, the average essential expenditure for a student over 52 weeks comes to a total of £10,660.

Inner London working class households, who on average earn around £32,200 and would therefore not qualify for full maintenance loan, are expected to find at least £1000 a year for only the most basic of costs, let alone social ‘luxuries’. Here we must bear in mind two crucial short comings of the current maintenance loan system. Firstly, it’s major underestimation of the cost of living in London for a year. One reason for this is that unlike the approximate 42 week Halls contract, from the second year onwards, students are forced to find their own private accommodation. The vast majority of which runs on a 52 week contract, increasing spending significantly despite students not needing a full year worth of accommodation. Secondly, it fails to acknowledge the inability of many working class families to provide the additional costs associated with loan shortcomings. Parents earning only slightly over the threshold, particularly if they have more than one financially dependent child, may find it impossible to provide the shortcomings of the loan.

So, what does this mean for students’ academic and social development? Let us say, for argument sake, that student A from a working-class background lives in London and therefore has the ability to commute from their family home. This is an option some students who live in London do chose. This is not to say that commuting into Central London is a necessarily bad thing. For some, the idea of living in the middle of a capital city or moving away from home is a prospect they do not necessarily wish to pursue. Of course, absolutely fine. What’s important here is that these students have the choice of whether or not they want to study from home. Here is the key concept many working class and disadvantaged students who study in London are left without. For students who cannot afford to 52 weeks’ worth of rent and do live in London, commuting is the only option they have.

Although this financial cost will vary between students, for a student in Zone 6 (the furthest ‘zone’ from Central London, but still within Greater London), a monthly travel card costs £161. Over the duration of the academic year the cost of commuting will be over £1,500. Yet some students are forced to travel from even further afield: Guilford, Brighton, St Albans and even Milton Keynes, just to name a few. The financial cost for students travelling from these distances is even greater. For some students, this cost may be covered by the reduced loan provided to those living at home, however even if so, the cost of commuting is not purely financial.

Delays, strikes and cancellations are intrinsically embedded into the Londoner’s commute. This, particularly for students who have minimal contact time, is a major problem. Let’s say, student A has an hour’s commute ahead of them. They’ve got a lecture on Monday morning that runs from 9am-10am, and nothing else on that day. This lecture is the only one provided as part of the module. When they arrive at the station they are greeted with an hour delay (this ‘minor’ delay often as a best-case scenario). The student, through no fault of their own, is missing crucial teaching time which is highly likely to affect their academic progress, putting them at a disadvantage to their peers in the immediate and perhaps more distant future also.

Aside from missing out on teaching, the burden of commuting can limit students’ social opportunities. Social events most commonly run in the evening; how are students living at home supposed to fully immerse themselves in the social sphere if they’re rushing to catch the last train home? Similarly, sports societies which require a lot of time and take place across Central London are so much harder to commit to for students travelling in. Having to commute with a kit as well as racquets, lacrosse/hockey sticks or other hefty equipment is not ideal and deters a vast number of commuters.

Now, this is not to say that commuting into London seriously impedes students. It does not in all cases. In some cases, commuting from home can be the best things students can do. It allows them to become more committed to their studies and utilise their time more effectively. However, what is crucial here is the ability for some students to be able to choose how they wish to navigate their university experience. Recent decades have seen higher education institutions insist that academia provides equal opportunity and is based purely on the idea of meritocracy. They will cry “our university is a place where students with ability and drive can succeed regardless of their backgrounds”, they boast their platform on which there is “equal opportunity for all to succeed”. Quite frankly, I’m not buying it.

Yes, we are in a time when students from disadvantaged and working-class backgrounds have the chance to go to university. And no, universities are not merely filled with affluent privately educated students. But, for universities to claim that they offer equal opportunity to all is completely insulting.

Still not convinced? Let us not forget students from further afield. Students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds with the ability, the drive, the desire to study at a top London university, (or indeed any top university they deserve to study at) but who live much more than an hour’s commute away. They neither have the option to live at university nor to commute from home. Who is supporting them? Who speaks for them? Ironically in this instance, those who can commute are comparatively in a position of luxury! They can travel an hour into university, they may be more tired and have to work harder than their peers to secure their academic and social life, but they at least have the chance to study at a university they are deserving of.

Here’s calling out universities. Government failings are clearly too great. The real cost of university is a national problem which is currently without a national agenda to seriously irradiate education inequality. Therefore, why not let responsibility fall on the institutions themselves? After all, they are receiving an additional £18,000 per student as of 2012 in ‘tuition fees’. Where has that money gone? Where does it continue to go? Why is it not being used to help provide more subsidised and affordable accommodation on a 42 week basis? Why is it not being used to provide much-needed refuge for students who do not have the ability to ask their parents for help?

It is time for these questions were asked. It is time for the myth of equal opportunity in higher education to be dispelled. It is time for answers, and most importantly: it is time for change.

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