It’s always been the stereotype that students are either incredibly poor, rather rich or capable of spending their entire loan on baked beans and vodka.  Probably a little harsh, since many students are able to make budgets stretch quite well, meaning that they can have a balanced lifestyle and still enjoy themselves.  All in all, not too bad then.

Students get loans and grants and many are lucky enough to have the backing of their parents.  Overall, many are able to live quite comfortably.  I, for instance, won’t get any grants next year for university (I get the Erasmus Grant this year to help with my placement in order to help with the extra expenses of studying abroad) but I hopefully will get the continued support of my parents and the loans that the Student Loans Company (SLC) provide.

I appreciate that for some students it does not work quite so easily – some may find themselves less able to help pay their way through university – especially for those on a limited budget in an expensive part of the country. However, this morning I opened up the internet and browsed some of the news coming out of universities – what I found was rather shocking.

The Independent reported recently that some students are struggling so much with the rising costs of university that they are being forced to contact food banks in their local area to help feed themselves.  According to the report, that number is also rising.

Hull University, for example, pointed out that their Student Union has a scheme set up to help students in need – they said that in the last 12 months the number of students using the service had doubled from 100-200 students.  One of the student welfare officers with the National Union of Students (NUS), Brittany Tomlinson, said that other universities were considering setting up schemes of their own to help students.  It’s not just the universities who are helping out either – Walsall College has started to hand out vouchers to provide emergency access to the Black Country Food Bank for three days.  They’re even offering free breakfasts for students.

This is something that I find desperately sad to hear – I’ve always appreciated the fact that some students found it tough to make ends meet but I didn’t realise that charity ever came into it. Most certainly a shock for me.

Why is this happening though?  What’s going on in the world of university education that means that students are struggling so badly that they cannot afford to feed themselves?

First of all, it could be the rise in the cost of living.  Currently inflation stands at a rather low rate, less than 2% in fact – perhaps then this isn’t too bad for us as consumers.  However, we also see student accommodation prices rising at a rate that makes inflation look relatively insignificant.  Some residences in Lincoln have hiked prices up by nearly 10% for new students – only those rebooking are permitted to have their rent frozen.  It’s a bit depressing for new students to say the least.

Of course, the increase in cost can be offset by an increase in financial support from the government in the form of loans.  However, the annual increase in student loan payments is barely keeping track of inflation itself – meaning that students are getting poorer in real terms.  No wonder some of them are struggling and feeling the pinch.

The other possibility is that students aren’t getting their loans on time as agreed by the SLC.  If payments are made late, then some students may find themselves with late payment charges on rent and other difficulties – especially if they’ve got things planned out.  If that’s the case and they’re having to stretch things out as long as they can, late loan payments spell disaster.

The SLC denies that late payments go out to students – something I flatly refuse to believe.  I have seen many students at my university asking for support from the university because their loans had not arrived on time.

Instead, the spokeswoman decided to blame late applications for the failure, including some that were submitted after the terms had begun.

Now, I’m sure there are some students out there who file such applications late, but I don’t think it accounts for the fact that so many students are struggling financially.  I can think of more experiences of students concerned about late payments than those who simply forgot to file one.  The spokeswoman’s comments display nothing more than a negative attitude to the problem, serving to reinforce the untrue notion that students are just lazy.  Pretty shocking stuff.

Has there been any action from the government over this?  Of course not, we got another one of their useless motivational sales pieces.

Over half a million are eligible for more non-repayable grants for living costs in 2012-13 than the previous year and almost 1 million students are eligible for more maintenance support in 2012-13 than students were in 2011-12… Young people don’t have to pay upfront to go to university.” – Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

If you read this very closely, you can see this makes no reference to the problem in hand (students can’t afford to feed themselves, basically) and is trying to sell university to students.

Wouldn’t this feel like a bit of a slap in the face if you were a student living right on the breadline?  Effectively the government is saying ‘look!  Here’s some free money to help you come to university!  Never mind the struggling students already there!’

The SLC’s denial over late payments and simply branding students as either disorganised or lazy, combined with the government managing to miss the point with another political sound-bite… It’s all just plain ridiculous.  Someone, somewhere has got to act and point out that if students are having to go to food banks, then something in the system is missing.

I fully support the idea of students using food banks in the short-term if they feel under incredible pressure.  However, the long-term answer is through significant policy change.  The government needs to stop trying to force people in to make money out of them, try and support those who are there more and also give new students a better deal.

As for the SLC?  Well, personally they need to wake up.  Their loans don’t always arrive on time and they most certainly don’t let all of us live comfortably.  They don’t even cover my rent for next year, let alone my living expenses.




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