Negotiating the System

This is an abridged extract from the report of qualitative projects looking at specific student groups that we commissioned from students’ unions, ‘Negotiating the System’, available for download online.


In Spring 2012, NUS commissioned six students’ unions to conduct small, focussed pieces of research into the experiences of different student groups and the financial support system. This has been an opportunity to begin to examine the stories behind the large-scale survey explored in the previous section. 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 studies were:

  • A. Placement students at Liverpool John Moores University
  • B. Nursing students at Liverpool John Moores University
  • C. Nursing and Midwifery students at the University if Central Lancashire & the University of Cumbria
  • D. PGCE students at the University of Bristol
  • E. Taught Masters students at the University of Bristol
  • F. Student Parents at Goldsmiths and the University of Greenwich

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. These two distinct ways of looking at their stories present specific challenges to policy makers and the services supporting the system:

As students negotiate the system - What are the information, advice and guidance needs of particular groups? In a mixed economy of support providers, funders and administrators at institutional, local authority and national level – to what extent are their coordination and communication methods fit for purpose?

As students negotiate with the system - What is the scale and nature of the compromises which these individuals must make? How do we define what is a fair and reasonable compromise in lifestyle, income, living conditions and immersion in the programme itself? To what extent does policy have a responsibility to rebalance this settlement? What is acceptable for a student to endure, and what is acceptable for a person to endure?

Throughout their stories, it is easier to see where there is opportunity to make minor changes that could in turn result in significant improvements for these students. The efforts and determination of the participants in the various studies to succeed in their endeavours, coupled with the sacrifices and accommodations which they, their families and friends make, are an inspiration. It is clear that they are not asking for everything to be simply given to them, they are driven individuals whose very efforts define their motivations, rather they make pleas for common sense and for policy to enable them to take part and succeed, to be given an equal chance at success as their peers.


Financial wellbeing and the extent to which students understood and could navigate the various schemes and options was a central theme within the reports. Students were thinking about the financial implications of their course before even starting, indicating that financial considerations were either “an important factor” or “the only factor” when they were choosing both which institution to attend and which location of institution for their course. This also had an effect on mode of study and in some instances subject.

The experience of part-time students is particularly important here. These participants had elected to study this way in order to find a job and fund their courses, an interesting distinction from what would traditionally be understood as the choice for part-time students whereby they are adapting study around a current job or career. This kind of response perhaps reflects the nature of the current part-time labour market, but may also act as a statement on the affordability or otherwise of further and higher education.

The effects of policy designed to manage supply and demand within labour markets was also noted by participants. In terms of Initial Teacher Training bursaries, for example, we see situations where one PGCE trainee had decided to study Maths rather than their degree because they could get a training bursary as Maths is a shortage subject; and a Modern Foreign Language trainee would have preferred to have done English instead of MFL (her degree), but was drawn by the increased training bursary for MFL trainees.

A concern that was raised in relation to this issue was that students from low incomes might be put off applying for non-shortage subjects since maintenance funding is so low that people might worry they’ll have to work to support themselves alongside non-bursary friends, who lived with parents or got help from parents. This kind of reference to difference in entitlement was often linked to a sense of fairness and equity. It was evident that many participants didn’t believe that the various policies and schemes always achieved equality within the system.

Participants’ perceptions of their wellbeing were most acute when talking about cliff-edges or where policy ‘missed’ the students. It’s certainly true that participants felt little control over their financial situations, leading to problems of retention and indeed health, with PGCE participants for example talking about students taking anti-depressants, compounded by time pressures meaning that they did not benefit from some sources of help open to other students since there was no time for counselling and no provision of extensions. There was reference to the subculture of PGCE students who are always stressed and school obsessed, which made inclusion in the larger PG student body difficult.

Financial pressure also seems to have an increased impact on students who are mature students or have other responsibilities. This was evident in some of the cases where responsibilities combine to pull an individual in a number of directions at the same time, with no harmony in the way various supports and mechanisms functioned to support these responsibilities – such as childcare benefits during summer break, housing benefits and the student loans system for example.

Parents in particular, who are more likely to be mature students, who form the majority of part-time students, and those that take on postgraduate qualifications have a number of key things to consider in terms of finances. As a university senior manager noted “When there are children involved, the way the student deals with the financial services is different, because it is not just them - they are looking after their children as well.”

An intriguing question was put: Is it compatible to have a mortgage and attend university? Some students reported that they had moved from their home into a rented accommodation. This is not an option for all though and the consequences are significant as although these students no longer have a wage, they still have to pay mortgage and there is no financial help with housing benefit for those with a mortgage. Parents consider the impact on their children, and the stability of a home could well be a step too far for many.

In terms of financing their study, information seemed to be another key issue, with many participants feeling that the bursaries do not cover the costs they are supposed to. Due to money worries during study and placements, participants frequently refer to extending overdrafts and taking out more credit cards.

Frequent changes in funding arrangements also impact students, who rely on up to date information, advice and guidance to make decisions and ultimately financially prepare for study. A PGCE Religious Education trainee said the government pulled out funding for her subject during her application stage. The misalignment of funding decisions with application times should be addressed in the future.

Regarding information about government administered student funding, participants expressed that Student Finance England did not have a clear website as the information available was often too simplistic, and badly structured. Also they felt that the Student Loan Company should provide better contact (apart from letters in the post) after a loan has been secured. This reflects a broader desire for accurate, reliable and personal advice.

Coupling these various student support schemes with state welfare benefits further complicates things – not least because of constant change and seeming turmoil across the spectrum of state support. One participant described feeling confused about whether changes to the Tax Credit system announced in April’s Budget meant that she and her partner would be eligible for Working Tax Credits under the new rules, if she studied full-time while he works more than 24 hours per week. It is specific cases such as this that become almost impossible to judge, as accurate and reliable information is perceived as rare and constantly subject to change.

There is also an issue for postgraduate students that teach – Working Tax Credits. The main issue for these students is when their contracts pay for the hours in which they have ‘contact’ with students. Often these contracts stipulate this hourly rate to include preparation, marking etc. These latter hours are not clearly laid out within the contracts, meaning that, should HMRC require proof of their working the minimum 16 hours a week required to claim Working Tax Credits, it would not always easy for them to produce. This is an issue for student parents in particular for whom childcare costs are often, to quote one participant, ‘prohibitively expensive’ without the help of the childcare element of Working Tax Credits.

Mitigation for such circumstances is in the form of discretionary funding, and institutions often provide bespoke pots of support, but these sums are limited, leading to cautious promotion. This was reflected by one student parent participant, who was not aware that their university offered any assistance towards the cost of childcare, or being able to draw on hardship funds for these costs.

For mature students, however, access to discretionary support may be frustrated because their first port of call for financial advice may not be within the university or their funder – such as the NHS - but from more general services such as the Citizen Advice Bureau. One of the best forms of support favoured by mature students was peer advice, or advice from students already on the programme, which is great, but responsibility for assured and quality advice must be addressed to ensure that those that need support and guidance can access it, not by chance, but by design.

There is a need to consider the different information and guidance needed for the range of applicants and current students. Changes in policy need to be clearly mediated, not just with advisers, but with the public. The availability of discretionary funding and support pots is of vital importance to many of the students for whom education and being a student is just one part of a complicated balance of their responsibilities. Clarity and the ability are plan are clear hygiene factors in this relationship.

Negotiating with finances

Students adopt a number of strategies to cope with the financial conditions of higher education. Sometimes this negotiation with the system is planned and purposeful – such as the choice to study part-time in order to take on a job, opting to do long days in placements to reduce travel costs or indeed study for one subject over another in order to benefit from a specific award. There was evidence in the reports that students understood this as a part of the system, these were compromises which they felt empowered to make – although they recognised that often these were not necessarily true choices for many people and saw various scenarios which precluded certain types of student from a given path.

Some students are forced to make more risker decisions. Many reported taking on library fines as opposed to the cost of travel to the institution – others because these fines are cheaper than buying core text books. Clearly these are not the intended outcomes of student finance or information resources policy as they affect book stocks and availability for other students and possibly issues with progression and graduation in terms of large debts to the institution.

One participant said that “It is sometimes cheaper to get the library charges than it is to go all the way to town and back when you’re not in classes- backwards I know! £3.25 fines are cheaper than there and back on the bus!”

High-risk debt was also a consideration for participants. None interviewed had taken this on beyond additional credit cards and overdrafts. A loan from parents was seen as a good way of avoiding ‘bad’ debt. This ‘bad’ debt was reviled as unmanageable owing to high interest rates. The knock-on effects of these personal loans though are a lack of security, difficulty in evidencing this as income for the purposes of discretionary support funding applications and indeed, as we will discuss, the family itself, who may have a number of responsibilities in addition to this.

Too often though, this negotiation results in mistakes, particularly for students who reported working between two or more funding mechanisms. Childcare support was a particular issue at one institution as 15 hours of ‘free’ childcare for 3-4 year olds is only available for 38 weeks of the year and it has to be claimed over a minimum of three days per week (or 12.5 hours can be claimed over a minimum of two days per week). Problems arise where the maximum cost that can be claimed for each of the ‘free’ hours is less than the institution’s rate, or if the nursery is unable to offer half days. Parents claiming the Nursery Education Grant in these circumstances still face significant childcare costs. Indeed, moving parents towards more frequent visits to the institution than they may need is yet another cost and upheaval.

Similarly with regard to benefits for parents, claiming over the summer vacation is an issue. Jobcentre Plus seems to struggle with the concept of eligibility for this period and quite often they end up re-registered and receiving their next loan payments before they have managed to work it out, so subsequently it ends up being cancelled.

The other issue with benefits is students continuing to claim once they become students. In some instances they are still entitled to some element of benefit, mostly housing benefit, but through fear of parting with the benefit they shy away from dealing with it. Student Support in the main is classed as income for benefit calculations and so it is imperative that students declare it to prevent overpayments and possible prosecution.

Sometimes internal rules and regulation clash with the system to great disadvantage, such as in the case of one undergraduate participating in our research, who had suffered from ill health and failed to meet her academic requirements, and was enrolled as an ‘examinations-only’ student for her final year: a status that did not allow her to apply for either the Childcare Grant, ALF or Childcare Bursary.

There are two other areas which were brought up within the reports where it was felt that policy and policy objectives seemed fail certain students – notional income and student loan weighting.

A postgraduate student’s application can be declined because the Notional Postgraduate Income (NPI - £161 per week in London) that is added on to applicants’ reported income. The NPI means that household income frequently appears to exceed its expenses, making applicants ineligible for the Access to Learning Fund (ALF). On the other hand it can also be the case for these, and many other students who report receiving financial support from family and friends, that this income cannot be properly verified. The result is that these students then cannot evidence the minimum income threshold to qualify for discretionary support. As one participant explained, she had applied at the start of the year only to be told that she “had too little money to be eligible for help … there is a [financial] threshold, and if you’re not over the threshold then you shouldn’t be doing a Masters.”

The NPI which is added to Standard ALF Award assessments is particularly problematic for it effectively excludes most postgraduate students from qualifying for the fund. It also overlooks situations in which, for example, both parents in a household are students (often having met at the university where they study) rather than one parent working to support the other’s studies.

Final year students have a smaller loan rate as a final instalment. This is despite a number of programmes, such as nursing, healthcare and midwifery finishing their courses in late August. In one case it was reported that the student had to live off £368 a month bursary with rent at £300 a month. The evidence suggests that a loan policy which applies, perhaps with some merit to most programmes, doesn’t make sense when also used on students with very different academic calendars, compounded by the fact that the majority of finance that students receive falls at the beginning of the academic year, and the hardest and often most expensive time for them is the final few months of the course.

Travel and Placements

The reports all had something to say about travel and the very closely linked topic of placements. It is worth stating the value which participants placed on the opportunity to take part in sandwich years and placements in industry. These were seen as an opportunity to develop practical skills, to exercise theory and to deepen their knowledge of their subject. In reports that dealt specifically with such placements, participants were keen to talk about the advantages and their motivations for taking part in placements on the whole. Where they had decided not to take part in this kind of activity, it was mainly because of affordability, particularly for those with other responsibilities and those whose parents couldn’t afford to support them. The benefit of these placements is such that it is a genuine concern that many students are unable to take part. The accessibility of these opportunities needs to be considered.

Travel was a big part of the narrative around placements as well as the research reports more generally. Travel in and of itself is not necessarily something which an institution is in control of, indeed the related travel costs could be argued to depend on a student’s choice of where to live. It is not always this easy though, and many of the stories which came out of the research projects focussed just on that. With an ever widening base of participants in higher education, comes an even wider array of responsibilities- families, mortgages, jobs, friends – coupled with an acute sense of the risks of taking time out for education. There was a genuine sense that students couldn’t afford higher education with its current support structures and a combination of either needing to retain or obtain a job to afford to stay on course. Concern over debt and costs causes people to stay close to their support base, to family and friends, to their normal life, resulting in a whole body of commuter students who essentially work part-time (or more), study full-time and look after a family. These students are very sensitive to change, and education is only one part of their life.

Information therefore plays a key role, and the hidden costs of the placement systems were an issue. Some students felt they were not made aware of placement costs before they started, and many did not know they were able to claim some expenses back. Students seem to feel they have little control over placement location or hours. Although this seems to be the norm, when so clearly there are large numbers of students who have other commitments, this lack of control can become an additional barrier to course completion and add to the feeling of isolation which the students reported.

Some students spend more than £50.00 - £100.00 per month on transportation, or more. Many face a significant travel distance just to get to and from university. This meant in a number of cases that, despite a placement wage, some students got into more debt going on to placement as there were higher costs and no opportunity to save money.

The barrier which is created for students living in rural areas where placements may be a significant distance from where the students live was also something which came out of the research. One student reported that she had to buy a new car because the amount she was traveling to placement, whereas several others brought up the wear and tear on their vehicles as a key cost. In the financial context of these students a vehicle break down could have a significant impact on their capacity to maintain their studies.

On top of these issues were problems of the system designed to support placements. They were unhappy about the complicated way of reimbursing travel costs, causing significant cash-flow problems. The high cost of petrol was raised in this context. Although many students said they would like to use public transport this was not always possible due bus timetable and location of placement:

“We are allocated placements wherever there is one. I have had to travel 80 miles 5 days a week which is extremely expensive for me. I am entitled to claim this money back however it takes around 30 days to process this request in this case I struggle to keep up to date with payments and leisure activities during these long periods of travel.”

There are local issues related with transport too. Student bus passes may not always be usable, as often night buses do not accept these passes. Also, despite seven-day bus passes being cheaper, some universities will often only reimburse five days’ worth of travel pro rata; students are only able to fully claim back five individual day passes despite this being more expensive and time-consuming. This adds to existing concerns that were expressed about having placements during anti-social hours, as this could impact on working arrangements, childcare and again transport. Those with children found that childcare costs were higher due to such unsociable hours.

In general, the process of claiming back transport money was found to be unsatisfactory. The systems which are operated locally do not take into account the delicate cash-flow problems of students in terms of both timing and process; they are better suited to salaried staff who can arguably better absorb costs. The impact of mistakes in the process was also noted in terms of process. There is much which should be done to address this system which in many cases is still reported as paper-based and bureaucratic.

One student commented that her wages were delayed for six weeks at the beginning of her contract, so she had to borrow money to live off, and then spent the remaining duration of placement catching up from what she had borrowed at the beginning. Another shared:

“I have recently been chasing £130 worth of travel expenses for eight weeks. That’s quite a low one; sometimes they can be for as much as £200, especially with community placements.”

Common problems with reimbursing travel included students not being reimbursed if university is further than their placement destination in miles, which doesn’t recognise the reality of how students budget, plan and organise their travel – not least because they may not travel to campus five days a week. The other was problems with rectifying mistakes or omissions such as mistakes with expenses forms being posted back instead of a phone call being made, with participants reporting that they are sometimes posted two to three times with different mistakes highlighted, as well as the correspondence being with the home address instead of study address. These are obviously local issues, but were commonly reported as the kind of thing where a small intervention could really make a difference.

Some participants spoke about unpaid placements. When weighing up the pros and cons of this, a common factor with all of the students who completed an unpaid placement was parental input. All had some kind of input, whether it be living at home rent-free for the duration of the placement, parents covering living expenses, or extra support when facing financial difficulty. This suggests that for those whose parents are not in a position to have some kind of financial input would be unable to take an unpaid opportunity.

One student stated that they required hand-outs from their parents regularly, but their parents could not realistically afford to do this. An unpaid placement may well be an excellent opportunity but it has detrimental effects on both the student and in some cases their parents. Most had to take on a second job to pay for it, and were far less likely to have children or dependants.

As we look to enhance the student experience, such as with sandwich degrees and placements, it is clear that for groups like parents and mature students, financial concerns and issues are clearly having a direct effect on their ability to perform and excel during their sandwich placements.

Support from family and friends

One of the interesting themes that come out of this research is the extent to which policy assumptions around parental support work in practice. There is a joint narrative between participants that were students that are parents, and students’ parents, friends and families. Both groups rely heavily on the support of friends and family, for both groups they rely on so much more than what is provided. One participant made it clear that he felt financially comfortable over the course of his placement only because he had support from his family. Another student, in the cash-flow study by Liverpool Students’ Union, was reported as coming the closest to running out of money completely, having access to less than £20 before the next bursary instalment.

Many noted that they rely on their parents for financial help, which they believe is not fair as this puts unfair pressure on their parents.

“Older sister is also doing nursing degree, we are both having to work – parents still need to pay for their own mortgage and for my younger sister, they shouldn’t have to worry about mine and my sister’s financial situation. They are put under more stress because we don’t get a bursary.”

Some have mentioned they have been forced back into living with parents, as they are unable to afford rent and bills if they live independently. There is a general correlation between those within the lower salary brackets with household family incomes up to £15k, staying with parents/family, and those earning over £15k generally staying in rented accommodation.

There are reports of parents taking on extra hours or additional jobs to afford to send their children to university. In these circumstances however, where the household income is increased to meet these actual needs, do we see the perverse situation whereby the means assessment is changed and takes away available bursaries?


The headline message for employment in these research reports is that working part time is expected, in fact it is needed. When asked why they undertake employment a significant number replied “to cover mine or my household basic living costs.” It seems clear that the socialising aspect of the university is seen as an extra which can be difficult to afford. Indeed, going back to the finance discussion earlier, availability of part-time work, or ability to keep up a job was seen as part of the decision about whether and where to study in the first place. There is a pressure to do paid work for these students, but even students who do not work are aware of this pressure and adversely affected by this situation.

The majority of the students who participated in the research projects have jobs, with a considerable amount having two or more. They feel they need the jobs in order to fund living as they do not get nearly enough from their loans. For others, a parttime job was necessary to mitigate problems with the financial support system such as late bursaries, travel reimbursement and hidden costs. This presented particular challenges to Masters students for example, who are often new to a city and don’t necessarily have the knowledge of the university or city needed to get a suitable job within such a short yet crucial timeframe.

A few mentioned that they spend any spare time they do have working instead of concentrating on assignments and exams which led to stress, fatigue and poor performance. One student singled out the impact of part-time work: “Just in terms of the sheer workload, my grades did suffer. I put that down to not being able to focus completely and just having too much to do”. The issue isn’t just with institutions. Students have to be lucky enough to have an understanding and supportive employer, which is probably why jobs on campus are seen as more popular.