Having finished my first year and about to start my second year studying politics at the London School of Economics, I have become increasingly aware of the services- or lack of- available to aid working class students whilst studying. Living in London in itself is challenging, but when you have limited support from your family and rely solely on student finance and bursaries to fund your studies, you begin to face many obstacles. These hurdles do not only come from a financial perspective, but also the opportunities available to students who are not from privileged backgrounds.
My first grievance is purely financial. Through means tested student finance loans, I am entitled to the maximum amount plus extras. This may seem breezy, but when you look at the bigger picture and all of the costs that comes with being a student in London, I barely scrape by. I have just done by budgeting for the next year and after I pay for my rent, travel costs, food shop, studying supplies and a personal allowance so I can have some kind of social life, I will pretty much be in minus figures by the end of the academic year.
The suggestion I always get, usually from students from privilege backgrounds, is ‘just move somewhere with cheaper rent’ or ‘buy cheaper food’ which, they may not mean it to, but is completely classist. In London, the further out you go the cheaper it is, but when you are commuting to central every day, the savings from rent just get spent on higher travel costs. Also, I could save a lot of money by eating beans on toast every day but I quite like not being malnourished and having the energy levels to actual complete my university work so, I’m not going to cut costs there.
The only reason why I wasn’t buried deep in my overdraft by the end of last year was because I got a job. Every spare few hours I had I spent working and only allowed myself to spend on personal things from the money I had earned. However, when we compare the students who have to work in order to be financially comfortable to those who don’t, it most definitely has an effect on academic performance due to having more time to study, less stress and more personal time. The bottom line is, I would really love not to have to work, but I don’t have a choice.
The absolute worst is when high income students say it is ‘unfair’ that loans are means tested and that everyone should get the same amount. Working class students do not have the privilege of getting their rent paid for by their parents and some even need to financially support their families whilst studying, so the least we can get is more government money. I also don’t buy the argument that middle class kids love to use which is ‘my parents earn a lot but they have a lot of outgoing costs so they can’t support me’. Firstly, working class families also have a lot of costs that has a lot more financial strain proportionally. Secondly, earning a lot and having a lot of outgoings is code for my parents spend their money on lots of lovely things, so sorry if I don’t sympathise. The truth is, your parents can afford to support you, they might just need to cut out the luxuries a little, which is a lot more accessible than students whose household earns less than £30,000 a year.
Moreover, it is very clear that the current allowance available for low income students does not suffice. Students should not have the pressure of just scraping by when they’re supposed to be immersing themselves in the university experience and focusing on their studies. I found myself constantly stressing about money and whether I had enough to even eat per month, resulting in me becoming extremely anxious and isolating myself due to having to sacrifice my social life. The current maximum (not including extras) is around £11,500 per academic year, but I personally think it has to be increased to at least £13,000, with anything on top of £10,000 being a grant.
And don’t even get started on the fact we have to pay it all back. It literally feels like we are punished for being poor. Not only will I have to make it all by myself after I graduate, I am going to be in more than £60,000 of debt and have to start paying it back immediately. Equality of outcome? I don’t think so.
Then there is the issue of opportunities. The most significant issue I have faced as a working class student at a top university is that most of my peers do not share my sort of background. So, when it comes to internships and work opportunities I am at a huge disadvantage. I found that when I started a lot of people my age had already got work experience with some big businesses, usually due to the fact they had contacts or went to a private school. Universities really need to take action to ensure working class students have the opportunity to gain work experience taking into account their background.
My fellow working class students, I feel your pain. I think it’s so important for privileged students to try and understand our financial situations to avoid making dumb comments. Universities really need to broaden the opportunities available for working class students, otherwise the class divide is going to continue to be manufactured out of our education system.