9 Days Remaining

Tuesday 16th
posted by Morning Star in Features

BERNADETTE HORTON talks of the hidden costs and struggles working-class families face sending their kids off to university

BERNADETTE HORTON talks of the hidden costs and struggles working-class families face sending their kids off to university

WE ARE used to seeing media headlines on the massive cost of tuition fees at £9,000 per year to attend university; the scrapping of maintenance grants in favour of loans by the Tories; the scrapping of help for disabled students, and the sheer hardship of paying off student debt.

But little is known or said about the actual year of going to university and the incredible burden on low-income students and parents.

It all starts at 17, when university options are discussed. As applications are made via the Ucas system online, students can apply to up to five universities. Where a student chooses to study is paramount as the living costs and opportunities vary widely.

Take my just-turned 18-year-old son at his local high school and his friend who attends a private school. Before making a decision on which university he should choose, it became obvious we would need to visit a few.

Looking at the budget for travel and an overnight stay to attend the open days, we barely managed to attend three universities. My son’s friend on the other hand, went off to all five of his choices with no concerns.

Our choices, whilst looking at the details of the courses on offer, also took into account the cost of travel back home and the cost of living in the town/city the university is located in.

Places like Bath, a long way from our home in north Wales, were dismissed purely due to costs.

My son’s friend has looked at universities all over the UK and his final choice took no consideration of the things we have to worry about.

Hotel bills of £70 to £120 a night for open days are a genuine struggle, and I wonder how parents on low incomes and benefits are able to manage this in order for their child to aspire to a university education.

My son took a scholarship entry exam to the university of his choice. It was not for the bragging rights that he took the test, but for the lucrative £1,000 a year extra promised if he managed to pass the exam handed out by the university.

My son’s friend laughed as he said he certainly wouldn’t put himself through all that stress on top of A-levels. Of course he doesn’t have to: money, or the lack of it, doesn’t concern him.

My son passed the scholarship exam and has an unconfirmed place and the cushion of that extra £1,000 that my husband and I don’t have to find. Relief.

So it’s nearly time to go. All the excitement and the new beginnings of adult independent life on the horizon. It should be a really exciting time, not just for my son but also for us, his parents.
I started buying a few items of equipment earlier in the year, but had no real idea exactly what we were letting ourselves in for financially, and we have his brother going to university next year too.
The cost of accepting the university halls accommodation is £100 which we had to pay, a TV licence for him at £145 for the year, a rail card at £30, duvet covers, pillows, a quilt, sheets, a laptop and printer, cooking utensils, saucepans, crockery, a new coat, new clothes, hangers, tea towels, towels, extension leads, bags, stationery, and a slow cooker — which I thought was a great investment for one-pot winter meals on a budget.

The list seems endless and the cost ever rising. There are smaller incidentals, and as the cost has risen, I have increasingly worried about finding the cash to pay for it all.

How do parents on benefits manage? I know some people I have spoken to who are relying on the goodwill of grandparents to help with the funds and the young people have tried to get summer jobs to help out with it all.

Choices on accommodation are firmly fixed on the cheapest option in halls, whilst my son’s friend is having a private flat for himself rented out by adoring wealthy parents.

The only delight I take is that from three to 18 their son has cost them over £100,000 in private education and he is ending up at the same university as my state-schooled son. But there the comparison ends, as the hoops my son has had to jump through to achieve things are immense, and his next three years will be spent studying and juggling a very small budget.

The irony for us parents is that child benefits end once the kids reach 18 as the government sees students as financially independent. But of course in reality, they aren’t.

It simply isn’t possible to live on the maintenance part of the loan you take out without parental support.

Here in Wales, we are extremely fortunate under Welsh Labour to have maintenance grants as opposed to loans which do not have to be repaid once university has finished. But for how much longer?

We are having to contribute towards our son’s food budget and pay his mobile phone bill, which is by no means an inconsequential cost.

We have done the sums, and after paying for accommodation, books, food, stationery and travel, plus the occasional social event and research trips, there isn’t anything left.

We will have this doubly when his brother goes to university next year. This is the price of working-class aspiration and it needn’t be this way.

I advocate the ultimate scrapping of tuition fees under a Labour government. But until we get one, we need some kind of national fund to put working-class kids on the same footing as their private school peers.

I know some universities will help out with travel costs for open days, but that isn’t universal. Some universities and courses require interviews where suits are expected to be worn too, an added expense.
We didn’t even look at the possibility of studying in London for example, as studying there with the cost of living was way out of my son’s league. Even travelling there for a day costs nearly £100 per person!

A national fund which all universities contribute to — one which working-class students can easily access online with parental income information — could iron out some of these anomalies we encounter from the start.

With university fees being given the all clear by the Tories to rise again, there ought to be some kind of social commitment to enable working-class students interested in courses all over the UK to at least be able to visit them without being punished financially.

Ongoing support for working-class parents in the form of child benefits being converted into, say, student support benefits for 18 to 21-year-olds would also alleviate some financial distress at a time when young people are costing more, and child benefit stops for good.

The Tories have slashed or scrapped child benefit for huge swathes of the population and so a student support benefit for parents on low incomes is more than doable.

Under Cameron and Osborne, the Tories were hell bent on university becoming the preserve of the wealthy. Their policies told us that only middle-class kids could have aspirations, while working-class kids were left to rot by the wayside.

Theresa May allegedly wants to boot privilege and the Eton-boy cliques out of her cabinet. That remains to be seen. However, aspiration is not just the preserve of the middle classes.

Working-class students and their parents aspire too. However the Tories’ continued financial block on higher education stops us.

I look forward to the day a Jeremy Corbyn Labour government reintroduces free education for all, and then our children can fly again.