How student finance arrangements could really help students

Alongside the campaigning for the EU referendum that has kicked off this week, the media will soon also be reporting on the campaign pledges for the devolved elections taking place in May. Scotland has tended to dominate this narrative given the near-miss with independence in 2014, but some interesting policies have also started to emerge from Wales. In particular, the Welsh political parties’ thoughts on tuition fees provide some food for thought.

With the dismissal of the Liberal Democrats from government, tuition fees have fallen off the radar in Westminster. The various opposition parties continue to argue about the injustices of the system, but there is not much they can do about it with the current composition of government. That is not the case in the Welsh Assembly: despite Labour governing, the Party does not have a majority, and its electoral performance may be threatened by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. What the opposition parties can offer on tuition fees has suddenly become more salient.

Given this context, the Welsh Conservatives have announced plans to get rid of tuition fees subsidies for Welsh students and pay half of their rent instead. The Conservatives believe the current Welsh system of reimbursing universities is unsustainable, costing £229 million each year, and are instead prioritising helping students with “potentially prohibitive living costs”.

Having only graduated less than a year ago myself, I am all too familiar with the appalling struggles many students face with living costs. Making ends meet can either entail working part-time alongside their studies – often in organisations not sympathetic to their academic commitments – or going without decent food or heating in the middle of winter. HSBC has suggested that living costs for students in London can exceed £300 per week. As many students are committed to 12 month rental contracts and jobs requiring them to work throughout the year in their university town, this presents many with completely unmanageable living costs that aren’t relieved by going home during the holidays.

While the maintenance loans system is designed to give enough to help students with low parental incomes survive, and less to students with higher parental incomes on the assumption their parents can top up their bank balances, this is simply not always sufficient. It is not possible for some parents in the ‘squeezed middle’ to help their children, and young adults with newly-found independence sometimes have too much pride to ask for help. This financial pressure – more than tuition fees – can prevent young people from all but the wealthiest backgrounds from going to university, or stop those who do attend from achieving their full potential in their degree.

The Welsh Conservatives have therefore hit the nail on the head where Westminster politicians have not even come close: living costs are a much greater pressure on students than tuition fee debt, and in a way that can affect their academic performance while at university. The potential for thousands of pounds of debt is of course still a concern, but as it is well publicised that they may never have to pay it back and it will not affect their credit rating, living costs are more likely to be at the forefront of their minds and damage their student experiences.

The ideal situation of every student having all tuition fees and maintenance costs fully funded by the Government does not look likely to materialise at any point soon. If the Government really wants to raise aspiration among groups of young people whose parents were held back, they could do with paying ideas like these some attention.