The Pound in Your Pocket

Many students are struggling to make ends meet, concentrate on their studies and stay the course, because financial support is systemically inadequate across both further and higher education.

Introduction to The Pound in your Pocket

If you are reading this, then you already deserve our congratulations and thanks, because it means you are one of a small minority of people who is prepared to engage seriously with the forgotten face of tertiary education funding. We have seen some extraordinary years of change for politics, the economy, and the society that both are supposed to serve – and further and higher education have been touchstone issues running throughout. The reduction in direct government funding for higher education combined with the increase in the cap on undergraduate tuition fees have been amongst the most high profile and divisive issues of the times. There is also, though to a lesser extent, public discussion of how further education should be funded; it comes less directly, through talk of ‘skills funding’, ‘co-funding’ and ‘employer-led funding’, but it is there. What we have lacked is any serious consideration of the third part of this equation – how students themselves are funded, to get in to education, to stay the course, and to succeed. The Pound in Your Pocket programme was created to address this deficit.

In July 2011, at the start of our terms of office, we decided to invest considerable resource into a two-year programme of research and policy development that would explicitly examine the state of student financial support to sustain living costs. At the time, the issue had a low profile in both NUS itself and in the policy community around further and higher education. Internally, the organisation had decided to prioritise work on a fairer and more progressive system for funding higher education institutions, because it was known that this would soon become a critical debate. It is easy to forget today that when Lord Browne was appointed by the then Labour government, he was asked to look at ‘Higher Education Funding and Student Finance’ – but the latter half of the brief seemed to vanish, perhaps because it added enormous complexity to an already difficult task being carried out with indecent haste. On the further education side, grand sector restructures, shuffling of quangos and reorganisation of funding regimes are all done with such frequency that it is simply impossible to draw breath and spend any time looking properly at how student finance fares in this turbulent environment.

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We reflect with sadness and anger that the one issue on which funding of students themselves has cut through the noise – the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance – has had such a dismal outcome despite a growing concensus that it was doing a lot of good for some of the most disadvantaged young people in society. We wanted to revisit that issue, but also to look more widely at ‘maintenance’ across the spectrum of student experiences: further and higher, undergraduate and postgraduate, young and adult, full-time and part-time, and across the many factors that influence those experiences – social class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, parenthood, subject choice, institutional type, to take just the main ones. So we formed a Commission to help and advise us on how to proceed, what questions to ask and how best to marshal the answers we would get. We want to place on record our thanks to its members, who gave up many hours of their time to support our work. This is also a good opportunity to thank the NUS staff who have worked on the programme and all the external researchers who worked on different elements of it. As the elected officers of NUS who lead on this area, we take responsibility for the final products and the conclusions offered.

The Commission had oversight of three major work strands:

Mapping the Evidence

We began by commissioning a literature review to map the existing evidence base, which we first published in April this year. This work shows the extent to which student financial support in England is over complicated and under researched, and that is not a good position from which to get the right amounts of money to the students who need it now, or to revise and reform policies and processes for the future. This is not an area where evidence based policy seems to be winning. The report shows that some support policies are maintained with minimal evidence, with government failing to properly assess their impact; worse, it is clear that some policies have been discontinued despite there being the weakest evidence for doing so.

The literature reveals that the overall complexity of support structures is enormous, and there is poor research into the extent to which students are successfully navigating that complexity. The move in both the HE and FE sectors from centralised support policies to institutional support such as bursaries is very significant and there is growing evidence (mainly in HE, where this shift is now several years old) to suggest this leads to unfairness and poor accountability. The assumptions and expectations around parental support, which were once more explicit in the system if never truly clear, have become far more hazy and nebulous, and lack any substantial grounding. The overall balance of support between students in the FE and HE sectors cannot be considered properly because of the strong differentiation of support policies and the rationale behind them.

Understanding the impact

We wanted to make a new contribution to this underresearched field, by conducting a student centred research project. Between December 2011 and February 2012, we conducted an online survey of English further and higher education students to better understand students’ experience of financial support and the extent to which financial considerations affect their wellbeing. A secondary objective was to gather information about students’ opinions on the current student financial support system and what changes, if any, could be made to improve it. A total of 14,404 valid responses were received, ranging from sixteen year olds in further education to doctoral students. Analysis of the resulting data has been conducted primarily through the lens of student wellbeing. As such, the relationship between financial factors and wellbeing indicators are core to the narrative as we seek to understand what impacts on student wellbeing and the nature of that impact.

Negotiating the system

Further to this, we wanted to understand in more depth the way that student financial support can change students’ personal stories – the impact on the narrative of peoples’ lives. To do this, we commissioned students’ unions to conduct six focussed pieces of research into the experiences of different student groups and the financial support system. This provides an opportunity to examine some of the personal stories behind the large-scale survey. They afford the opportunity to see how different students are coping with the current system, specifically where pressure and disadvantage result in an unfair settlement. The picture which these six studies paint is one of negotiation; both in the sense of groups of students making their way through, often in spite of, the student financial support system as it is intended, and in terms of negotiation with the system to get the support they need.

Having reviewed all the material generated through this work, we have come to one central conclusion: many students are struggling to make ends meet, concentrate on their studies and stay the course, because financial support is systemically inadequate across both further and higher education. To illustrate this, we want to highlight these ten leading findings drawn from our large-scale research:

  • 1. There are clear associations between financial support policy and practice, student wellbeing, socio-economic background and retention.
  • 2. Financial difficulties are pushing many students to the brink of ‘dropping out’.
  • 3. Around a third of students across all groups report negatively on their wellbeing, on key indicators such as ‘ability to meet the cost of basic expenses like rent and bills’ and ‘ability to concentrate on studies without worrying about finances’.
  • 4. Even relatively small levels of debt (over £1000) in the form of bank loans, credit cards, or high risk borrowing like ‘pay-day lenders’ and ‘cheque cashers’ are strongly associated with poor student wellbeing.
  • 5. Excessive working hours are associated with poor wellbeing and with origination in areas with low higher education participation rates.
  • 6. Access to financial support from the family has a significant association with both wellbeing and progression to further study.
  • 7. Students across all groups want more cash support such as loans, grants and bursaries, with a high frequency of payments, either weekly or monthly depending on the level of study.
  • 8. Course related costs are prevalent, expensive, and often concealed; there is a clear association between high course costs and low wellbeing.
  • 9. High levels of accommodation and transport costs are associated with reduced wellbeing.
  • 10. Adults (19+) in further education, older students (21+) in higher education, NHS supported students, student parents and disabled students appear to be under particular financial strain.

Because the research focus on student wellbeing is unusual and some of the analytical approaches we have taken are quite novel, and because the methodology – as with all research – had some limitations, our first challenge is to government and the academic community to invest in further research designed to test these findings. In particular, we need additional research to make a more detailed assessment of causality where there are so many influencing factors at work. An attempt to determine which are the dominant causes of reduced wellbeing to be tackled by policy change, and which can safely be set aside, would represent a highly valuable new research agenda.

Nevertheless, our main challenge is to policy makers. We refer equally to our members who are making policy in the student movement, and those in institutions of further and higher education, in the further and higher education policy communities, and in government, because taking this issue on effectively will require engagement of all those stakeholders. We believe that we can see clearly enough from the existing evidence base and our own contribution to it that there is a significant public problem to address. First of all, it demands far more attention from all those involved. We should all stop for a moment and consider the personal experiences of the thousands of students who have helped us compile this evidence and ask what we might be able to do to help them.

The policy question itself is huge and finding solutions will require difficult choices to be made. Public budgets are under pressure like never before in our lifetimes. We may want to reform the system to make sure that most students, or groups of students under particular pressure, get more help overall. We may want to reduce the level of student borrowing from more expensive and riskier sources. We may want to reform the pattern of payments or improve the way that discretionary funding works, to ensure students have access to support when they really need it. We may want to introduce tighter controls on the costs students face. We may want to make sure that public sources of support interact in a much more holistic way with paid work and with the benefit system. None of these things are easy on their own, and doing several of them together will mean choosing the right priorities for the right reasons, and careful, detailed work to make it all coherent. We know that this will be challenging for many, not least in our own membership, who want to make a case for greater overall expenditure on student support. Instinctively, we want that too - but it would be an abdication of our responsibility to students facing difficulty now if we did not think hard about how better to distribute the precious resources we already have.

Before opening the debate about how we might reform the system, we want to give people an opportunity to consider the research, at least by weighing up the material presented in this document. The online resource will take even more time to digest. But time is of the essence, so we will publish and consult on outline policy proposals early in 2013.

A final thought. Sometimes, over several years working in and around the further and higher education policy communities we have heard people say ‘but this is one of the most generous systems of student support in the world’. We disagree. We see a system in which many students are trapped in their own personal austerity, unable to progress, sustain their education or succeed. We see a system that confounds itself by requiring students at all levels to pay ever more for their education without ensuring they have the means to benefit properly from that education. We see a system in desperate need of change, and we will do whatever we can to make that change happen.