Lizzie Roberts exposes serious issues with Higher Education caused by Student Finance England.
Student Finance England (SFE) is designed to give all students the opportunity to embark on higher education, with the support of government finance in the form of a maintenance loan. The sum each student receives however varies greatly and is dependent on a number of factors: their parent’s income, their geographical location and also where they are going to study.
However, after having just completed my first year at university, I have begun to see loopholes in the way that the system grants these loans. Whilst It is intended to adequately support all students during their time at university or college, evidence suggests that some students have begun to ‘play the game’ of SFE – finding ways around the system. On the other hand, others have been let down by its inefficiency to assess how much they should receive.
SFE’s online guidance pertaining to how they evaluate students for loans states that “The lower the household income, the more Maintenance Grant you will be entitled to.” However, the process of assessing students in order to allocate the grants is not sufficient. The application procedure is relatively simple, especially compared to the processes of gaining a bank loan; the student is required to fill out a series of questions in an online form, in which they must declare amongst other information: where they previously studied, where they are going to study, how much they have earned that year, whether they will be living at home and crucially, though this not compulsory, their parental income.
So, how have people begun to cheat the system? Take for example ‘student X’. They may live in a single parent home and state they are dependent on that one parent, whilst at the same time the other is still providing financial support. This does not have to be declared on their application. As the guide also states “if your parents are separated or divorced, Student Finance England will take the income of whichever parent you are financially dependent on. They will ignore the income of the other.” I have seen cases where students declare they live with a single parent, are therefore given the maximum loan, but in reality their other parent is providing them with adequate support. When I asked the student why they took the loan if their other parent was able to support them, they responded “because it’s free money.” However, what a lot of students seem to be forgetting about SFE is that this is a loan system and it needs to be paid back. Therefore, this implies that you can cheat the system via changing your legal guardian to, or going to live with, the parent who has less income, in return giving you more maintenance loan, whilst still being subsidised by the wealthier parent.
When I asked the student why they took the loan if their other parent was able to support them, they responded “because it’s free money.”
Whilst some students are taking money they do not need, others are not sufficiently benefited by SFE. From my own personal experience, the government body does not adequately support me or those from a similar background at university. My family home is in the Northern Home Counties, my parents are married and they have full time jobs above the minimum wage. The total amount I am given as a maintenance loan is £3,575 a year, the minimum amount you can receive as I did not declare my household income, yet last year my accommodation alone cost £4,508. Therefore, this left me in a position with no money for other living costs, which is what the loan is designed to cater for. I am lucky in the fact that my parents are in the position where they are able to support me throughout my university life. However, not everyone is in the same position.
There is evidence of people caught in a gap through not qualifying a sufficient maintenance loan and not having parents who are able to support them financially at university. In November 2012, The Guardian reported that the “University and College Admissions Service…concluded that there was evidence of a sharper fall in application rates for young people from wealthier backgrounds, compared with poorer teenagers.” Though this can primarily be put down to the rise in tuition fees, it cannot be denied that if all SFE loans were to cover accommodation costs as a minimum, university applications may be higher. A form of reverse discrimination has come about through the system, where some students, not primarily from poor backgrounds, are unable to attend university as it is not economically viable for them.
A form of reverse discrimination has come about through the system, where some students, not primarily from poor backgrounds, are unable to attend university as it is not economically viable for them.
Student Finance England seems to follow a philosophy of “one rule for one and one for another”, but in terms of financial support to aid a young person’s education, there should be more rigorous assessment to make it a level playing field. It is all too easy for some students to sidestep the system, whilst others are discouraged from attending university due to the costs. Pupils applying to higher education institutions are playing the game of Student Finance by weaving around the loopholes to gain large loans, whilst at the same time still being supported by other financial means. It is the responsibility of the government to overhaul the system to make it an effective, fair and working loan system for all students, from all backgrounds. It can be questioned whether the Government is using Student Finance England as a political tool, taking the popular stance of supporting low income families through giving them substantial financial support at university. However, is this to the detriment of the squeezed middle?
Lizzie is a second year History and Politics student at Lancaster University, with a strong passion for American politics, equality and good old British sarcasm.