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Pete Mercer

Peter Mercer
Pete Mercer is the NUS Vice President (Welfare).

The Great Student Support Swindle: Part 2

So last time I talked about how the Government is literally stealing from students.

This time I’ll be highlighting just some of the reasons why it was so important that students filled out the Pound in the Pocket survey and why it’s high time the sector starts acknowledging student support as a major driver of social justice through our education system.

There are a number of myths here that I intend to slay. To name a few:

The narrative that Widening Participation is “all about” access to university. Other than being obviously a pile of rubbish (educational inequality starts at nursery), this is the narrative that prompts institutions to undertake what can sometimes – though certainly not always (some are brilliant) – be tokenistic outreach programmes to secondary schools, without adapting their selection process and instead of schemes that actually tap into key drivers. The narrative that encourages them to advertise flashy student services in glossy prospectuses, without following it up with robust pastoral care. The narrative that quite frankly allows them in some cases to take a laissez-fair attitude to the wellbeing of students once they get there.

Widening participation is as much about retention as it access. And retention is largely to do with ensuring students are adequately funded and that their mental, emotional and physical wellbeing is supported, and not just academically supported, throughout the duration of their course.

The narrative that students should be poor. This narrative dates back to a time when living on beans on toast, with a thick woolly jumper as a substitute for having the heating on, in a run-down and badly managed dive was seen as a sacrifice for the privilege of being a part of the elite top 10% of the population, that got the opportunity to further themselves and get a degree at the “expense” of the taxpayer. Yes, at a time when there were government grants and when it was paid by the taxpayer.

With most public funds being withdrawn from HE, this just isn’t gonna cut it anymore. Access to higher education has expanded, but HE itself hasn’t adapted. We might have opened the doors (debatable), but most people still have to sit on the floor and end up having to leave – cold, hungry and skint.

The narrative that postgraduates don’t need support. The government outlines an assumed income that postgraduates are supposed to have at their disposal before applying to study. With no national state funding mechanism for taught postgraduate programmes, the government is perpetuating the view that postgrads  don’t have any entitlement. The principle that money could ever be a pre-requisite for education is a disgrace.

The narrative of means, or rather “income” testing: one that dictates “well, your parents earn x amount and you could get x amount or so if you got a job, therefore you probably don’t need much financial assistance and so we won’t give you it on those grounds”. Well I’ve got many a choice thing to say about that. I’ll leave it for another blog though. But why don’t we look at need for a second.

In fact, there are a million and one things to think about when talking about student support. Whether that’s means testing vs. needs testing, monthly vs. termly instalments, statutory vs. discretionary funding, loans vs. grants distribution – there are a lot of tensions to consider.

Our most recent figures shows that the average shortfall in income, when weighed against a typical student’s expenditure (as set out by BIS standards), for HE students is roughly £7k – a shortfall which, presumably, is to be made up by parental contribution, savings and/or part-time work. You don’t need to have a degree to work out the implication of this within the wider socio-economic context. In fact, let’s try an experiment: get on the phone and ask your parents if you can have £7k, or a friend, or your employer – just try it once. I don’t need you to tell me what they’ll say!

Meanwhile in FE, not only have we witnessed the removal of EMA, but travel subsidies are being taken away left, right and centre, perceived as soft targets for local government cuts. Many students won’t be able to afford to physically get to college, let alone study there. And so we see a market seep into the FE sector, where colleges use geographical location and transport links as a competitive advantage to attract students and where students are restricted to studying at a certain institution, if at all. Again, you don’t have to dig deep into studies of infrastructure to realise that mobility is a key indicator of social mobility.

I could detail any length of injustices within the student support system, but for now I’m just making a point.

Which is this: if we are really serious about ensuring equity across the sector and we truly care about widening participation, then we as a movement need to start thinking much more critically about the ways in which the government and sector collectively support our students, both financially and otherwise.

Pete Mercer

NUS VP Welfare

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'The views and opinions expressed in these blogs are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of NUS

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