An increasing number of students are running into financial trouble, largely due to failures in the student finance system and the rise of tuition fees. We talk to two very different students about their experiences of dealing with their finances while at university.
I think my initial aspirations for university were fairly normal. I viewed higher education as a way of avoiding working a great many poorly paid hours in an alienating job and, with any luck, obtaining a well paid, fulfilling position of employment that would enable me to plan for my future. Like many other students, I had an agreement with my parents that they would be able to help me with my accommodation costs.
However, during the first semester I began to seriously struggle with some mental health issues that had been developing over the last few years. For months I was unable to attend lectures consistently and was lucky to sleep three times a week. Going to the doctor for sleeping pills, I was informed of the recurrence of a previously dismissed heart condition which would require several rounds of intensive testing in London over the next six months. Shortly after this, my father suffered a major mental breakdown relating to his long-term mental health issues, the same ones that meant that he wouldn’t give any of his information to Student Finance England.
At the time, I was ineligible for anything except the bare minimum from the Student Loans Company due to my father’s erratic behaviour. My mother works part time as a cleaner when she can, whilst also looking after five young children who still live with her.
Upon arriving in Leeds last September, I was 21, having worked for three years beforehand. All of my savings, and those of my eldest sister, have gone towards helping with debt brought about by the failure of my father’s business. Together we have contributed over £12,000. I didn’t really fit into any of the allocated categories that SFE lays out for exceptional consideration. My mother and father separated over the course of my first year at University, yet didn’t divorce and the occupied properties were still held under joint name contracts, meaning that I couldn’t apply through my mother as a single-occupancy household. I didn’t hold enough payslips to prove that I was previously independent as I spent a year and a half working abroad and the rest was cash-in-hand. I am too young to be considered a mature student. I wasn’t ‘estranged’ from my parents (at the time) and so had no choice but to apply as still living at home, despite them having since left the country. I had hoped, after finding one of the many leaflets available throughout the Union building, that the University would be able to provide me with some kind of support.
In order to apply for financial aid from the support division of the University you sit in a room in the Union and talk, in detail, about your financial situation and what complications you are experiencing. Asking for financial aid is an intimidating thing for anyone to have to do, often the result of some fairly compromising and highly personal events that have taken place in your life. I didn’t expect to have to talk about such personal information. The prominence of people from comfortable, middle-class backgrounds, who appear to float through their years of study in Leeds with relative ease, is an added pressure to any student who has any feelings of inadequacy about their own state of affairs. Any insecurities I felt about wondering whether university was a rich man’s game were worsened when the department told me that they would be unable to assess me as an individual without my parent’s details due to my age, irrespective of my circumstances. Although the woman who helped me was trying to be helpful, she didn’t seem to understand that my father both was paranoid and delusional and that ‘a little persuasion’ wouldn’t entice him to submit his financial details.
I also applied for a separate grant which required three months’ worth of bank statements, a long, convoluted application form and a cover letter as to why I thought I was worthy of any support. After about three weeks of waiting, I received a letter saying that because I had more money going out of my bank account than coming in, I would be given £150 out of a possible £2,000, which could have paid for the majority of my accommodation. I was pleased to have received any money at all. However, I was slightly confused by the logic resulting in me being given what I was. Why on earth would I be applying for financial support in the first place unless I was aware that more was leaving my account than coming into it, at an alarming rate? Is that not the exact essence of being in financial difficulty?
Without fitting into any of the distinct and inflexible categories that exist, I was unable to access genuine financial aid without consideration of parents, from whom I receive absolutely nothing, like countless other students. I had to balance out putting what I could towards my accommodation costs, contribution towards my family as and when it was possible, travel to and from various hospital appointments against the cost of my living expenses from a minimum pay-out from SFE. As a result of this I was barely able to afford food and lost over a stone during the first semester.
By the second semester, my health had improved and I was able to find work. In order to do more than break even I needed to work four or five nights a week, which alongside an intensive joint-honours course, was tough. With the semester finished, I had managed to save some money with the aim of paying off the remainder of what my father had left to pay for my halls. However, upon talking to someone in the accounts department, it turns out he had been lying about paying anything at all and I still had a balance of £3,000 in my name, with only three weeks to settle it. There was no compromise on when I could pay and if I didn’t postpone my studies I would be ejected from the university on account of my debts. As a result I have had to take a year out and am now working 60 hours a week on minimum wage in order to get back in September. It’s difficult to get a decent job on a short-term basis in a city that is full of students who are willing to do a three month placement for free over someone who needs paying on a yearly basis.
Despite the efforts of several people within the University, there was nothing in the limited support network available to help me. Obviously this is just my own example, but from what I have observed, there are a great many students who are applying to university with the hope of getting a well paid job that will allow them to shape their own futures, to create better lives for themselves or even if it’s just to experience the privilege of independent living around other young people in a lively student environment, such as Leeds. I wonder how many people are being denied the support they need due to their unusual circumstances or held back by the non-compliance of their parents whilst other people are able to easily play the system via the loopholes that undeniably exist.
My frustration lies with the both the University and Student Finance for putting such a uniform, rigid and impersonal system in place for determining how support is allocated without any consideration for the complexity of an individual’s circumstance.
Many young people have to strike out on their own by their late teens and early twenties. If a university is supposed to celebrate diversity and equal opportunity among its students then why is there such an under-evolved system for an obvious problem like financial instability?
If only there was a more considerate framework of support put in place to help them onto the educational ladder, I believe many of them would be able to change their predicaments for the better.
The writer of this piece wished to remain anonymous.