The plight of the “starving student”: no laughing matter

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Image courtesy of Philip Brewer via Flickr

The plight of the “starving student” is often a joke tossed around by many, however it appears to be too close for comfort nowadays and to no longer be a joke. University higher education has always been a key component in the debate surrounding class. While the term “class” may sound antiquated and Victorian, there has definitely been and remains today a very real class divide within the higher education system.

For those lucky enough to attend private schools, they are encouraged from the moment they enter to achieve outstanding grades and partake in extracurricular activities that will secure them the best of places at universities across the country; universities that these private institutions can brag about in the hopes of securing the support of more wealthy parents. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with ensuring your child has the best start in life through classrooms with less than 10 children and teachers who are being paid healthy wages to secure your child’s individual success. Yet the vast difference between the private and public school experience can be called into question.

The average class size of government-funded schools tend to be around 30 children, tripling the number of students that the teacher has to be concerned with. This combined with the fact that different backgrounds undoubtedly breed different priorities and worries for individual students, puts those from lower income families at risk of being unable to pursue higher education. A child with parents able to afford private school will have an entirely different outlook on the education system to that of a child who is helping their single parent look after their younger siblings. A child considering getting a job so she can afford school uniforms (with that oh so important school logo emblazoned on). For many students whose main concern is the financial wellbeing of themselves and their family school appears to be nothing but a waste of time and energy.

For a child who has witnessed their parents struggle to finance an average lifestyle higher education, that comes at the average cost of £57,000 worth of debt for a 3 year course (according to the National Union of Students 2017 report), without the promise of a job afterwards seems rather unimportant and much less attractive than leaving school and going straight into work. With the government’s removal of the student grant in 2012 and, what appeared to me in the years afterward to be, an increased marketing of apprenticeships students from lower income backgrounds cannot help but feel that university education (which has always been seen as a signifier of a middle class notion) is being made more unattainable than ever before. Especially with students from disadvantaged backgrounds 35% less likely to attend university at all.

Even when students decide to take on that debt they are often left facing new decisions and responsibilities of everyday life, such as rent, for which they are criticised by the wider media for having little experience in handling. Never have students been taught about the true basics to life.

We often leave high school and then college without a true grasp on how to function in a world not mapped out for us by our schedules or restrained by the school bell. Ask a student straight out of college how to get a good credit score, how much they should budget for a weekly shop or how to budget effectively at all and they will often find themselves overwhelmed by the prospect, and understandably so.

This may be why in June it was revealed that, while there are generally more students from poorer backgrounds attending university, no doubt thanks to the massive increase in university based funding for just these students, the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds completing their courses is dropping faster than ever. This calls into question the validity of university based support. While a massive outreach programme has been undertaken there is no doubt that this is simply a quick fix. With student loans often not covering basics such as rent in student halls, parents who can be unwilling or unable to fund university life are expected to pick up the rest of the bill. More times than not, I have heard and witnessed stories of children with parents simply unable to lend their child money for food resulting in a generation of students with mass overdraft issues.

Even those students who budget their money meticulously often find themselves facing crisis with 46% of students worrying about being able to afford bread or milk. This forces students to take on jobs that they simply do not have time for, and so the time allotted to their education suffers compared to those students who have no need to worry about their financial situation. Yet the students working to pay off their overdrafts often come under fire for being “irresponsible” with their money. Politicians and parents alike are more than ready to criticise a student for spending their loans on clothing and other “unnecessary” items, but that same politician is paying his wife a salary out of tax payer money.

The stereotypical student is known for blowing their money on alcohol and expensive shopping sprees. But the fact remains that many students, especially those who receive maximum loans, face a life of debt after university. It seems the price of an education and a wish to further yourself in life for those from lower class backgrounds is a literal one, and a hefty one at that. Banking on yourself to succeed later in life comes with the added pressure of not having your parents to fall back on and this pressure appears to be increasing as the years go by. This is why the NUS commission is looking into ways in which the higher education system can be made just as attainable and, possibly more importantly, sustainable for those from disadvantaged backgrounds as it is for those born into privilege.