This seventeenth edition of CPAG’s Student Support and Benefits Handbook is published at a time of exceptional challenge and ongoing change for both funding for education and social security provision.
Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, student poverty was a real issue. In England, students in further education can access little support for their maintenance or course costs, while many adult learners pay steep fees to access courses. In higher education, maintenance support remains inadequate to meet the cost of living, the poorest young people graduate with the highest debts, part-time student numbers have plummeted, and drop-out rates have increased. Funding for postgraduate study has improved in recent years, but that, too, is in the form of loans, rather than grants. For many students, funding does not cover their living costs, meaning studying remains unviable for many marginalised students. The recent Augar Review suggests some positive changes, but even assuming the UK government accepts the review’s recommendations, a formal response has been beset by extensive delays.
Elsewhere in the UK, students also struggle. In Northern Ireland, many grant and loan rates have been frozen for years, with some rates being inadequate even when they were set. Wales shows that a different approach is possible: higher education maintenance funding is substantially more generous than for students in England or Northern Ireland. But even in Wales, fees have risen, and further education students still receive less than those at university.
All of this has been exacerbated in 2020 by the extraordinary impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has affected not only student income as part-time employment has become far more scarce but has also affected the income of many students’ families, as parents and partners lose jobs or find themselves on furlough. The usual safety nets – university and college hardship funds – are under enormous strain. For many students, financial pressures are compounding the impact of coronavirus on their studies.
Meanwhile, the Department for Work and Pension’s considerable reforms of social security continue, with the new universal credit now well on its way to replacing many benefits and tax credits. The introduction of universal credit continues to cause significant challenges for claimants, and the system as a whole still fails to fully support the most vulnerable.
In this context, it has never been more important to understand how both education funding and social security work, and how they interrelate. Politicians purport to see education as a route out of poverty, and vital to the economic health of the nation. Yet students from the poorest backgrounds are still hugely under-represented in further and higher education, even more so in the elite institutions. Although we know that over the last two decades there has been a significant improvement – the majority of school leavers now continue in education – this expansion does not extend in anywhere near the same proportion to families living in poverty.
Low-income students, who are disproportionately Black, Asian or of another minority ethnic group, still face formidable barriers to their participation and to their achievement. They often have to work more during term time, are less able to rely on family support (both financial and otherwise), and must navigate the ever-changing and quite bewildering student support and social security benefits systems, often with little or no guidance.
When people on low incomes do enter education, they face institutional barriers and tend to follow a more complicated path, taking more breaks, deferring enrolment, and switching, repeating or restarting their courses for non-academic reasons. We know these people are also more likely to drop out or forgo opportunities to progress to more advanced courses. All this complicates even further their financial support and adds to the pressures people face in determining their entitlement.
‘How will study affect my benefits?’ is a key question for anyone who is living on benefits and thinking about going into education. No one can make a decision to start or continue studying without knowing they can support themselves and their family.
Fair access to education – indeed, education itself – is about much more than money, and clear, relevant information on financial support for students is vital. That is why the National Union of Students (NUS) is proud to collaborate with CPAG in producing this Handbook.
Good advice is critical. Student support across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland differs and, as a devolved issue, these differences are ever more apparent. Advisers, therefore, need information that relates specifically to the different nations across the UK. This book covers students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, complementing CPAG’s Benefits for Students in Scotland Handbook. We hope this Handbook will aid advisers, act as a tool to help break down barriers and, in the process, help people from disadvantaged backgrounds enter and complete further- and higher-education courses.
Of course, this Handbook is no silver bullet. If the government seriously wishes to eradicate child poverty, education must be a priority. It must commit to action on a number of levels: fairer access to student support; increased capacity in the student advice sector; further development in childcare services; greater investment in schools in disadvantaged areas; more resources channelled into our community support services; and, not least, uprooting institutional classism and racism, particularly in some of our older and larger educational institutions. All remain substantial challenges.
When access to education is truly equal for people from both poor and rich backgrounds, and we are rid of the institutional barriers marginalised students face, we will know that poverty is on its way to being eradicated. Until then, NUS is fully committed to supporting our members to fight against the institutional financial barriers and injustices in the education funding system and, ultimately, to win fully funded and democratised education that is truly accessible and lifelong.
Larissa Kennedy, NUS President