Can I pay my rent late this month?
Fenton Christmas explains what it’s like being a student from a low income background and how the university fails to address the impacts inequality can have on less affluent students’ studies.
With the end of year celebrations approaching, there might be one person who sticks to just one drink, says they’re not hungry when everyone orders food, and goes home rather than joining in as the group moves on to the next bar. You might think they’re tired, unwell or just plain boring. But the reality could be a little more sobering – they might just not have the money. Students from lower income backgrounds are everywhere and are in need of help that all too often evades them. Every day becomes a struggle as they try to function as a student whilst having real money worries and troubles. I know, because I’m one of those people who deals with it on a daily basis. Can I afford another drink tonight? What excuse can I use to get out of this dinner out? What more can I cut back on to allow me to afford a Grad Ball ticket? It’s a genuine problem that affects so many people at the top universities in the UK, and so often it’s never addressed in the right way.
In a city with some of the highest rents outside of London and some of the highest monthly parental contributions in the country, having to pay your own rent and having no help from parents can have a monumental effect on not just your finances, but also your mental health. In my second year, I was given the same student loan as someone I knew whose parents paid all their rent and also gave them a substantial amount of money each month. In contrast, my loan covered just over half my rent for the academic year. I had to find the money to pay not only that, but also my bills, food shopping, and then have some money on top of that to have some degree of a social life. I know many people at this university and elsewhere who have not been able to join the societies they wanted, struggled to make friends, or even go on dates because of financial strain.
Whilst no-one in this world is entitled to those things without money, the disparity is so large for two students at the same university it’s scary. The level of stress and pressure I was under was too big to cope with, I fell into a bad depression and would often just break down in tears. I couldn’t sleep, wasn’t eating and barely left my room. I was, however, very fortunate to have a landlord who was understanding of my situation and moved my rent payments around as I scrambled money from various sources just to cover myself.
The somewhat obvious rebuttal to any cry for financial support is “well, go and get a job.” There’s nothing wrong with having a job alongside studies by any means; I have one and I would implore everyone to get one. It teaches invaluable life skills, integrates you with a diverse range of people and gets you used to the working world. But the problem emerges when the need for money ekes too far into your studies. For some, they take up summer jobs to earn enough to live off over the course of the year so their studies are not impacted so much. I did that, however on minimum wage, I found myself working nearly every day over the summer to earn enough to try and live off over the following year. One summer I worked two months straight, eight hours a day and not one day off, as I tried to pay off the debt I had accumulated over the previous year. It led to me losing substantial weight as I ended up not eating or sleeping properly to work more hours.
the disparity is so large for two students at the same university it’s scary
But I had no other choice without a large impact on my studies. Some can only get a job during term time, but it makes things so much more complicated. How can two degrees be comparable, when one person who works, hypothetically, three days a week then only has the potential to work on their degree four days a week, whilst another who doesn’t need a job theoretically has a full seven days? That’s almost double the amount of time. Imagine sitting an exam in which all the lower-income students have half the time to complete it as everyone else – there would be public outcry. However, this sort of difference occurs at almost every top university in the country, and nobody seems to notice.
Moreover, not all degrees have the time allowance for students to work during the week: medicine, law, etc. have such full-on timetables that lower-income students with jobs are constantly playing catch-up or just missing out on teaching altogether. I’m not suggesting that money should just be handed out to lower-income background students, but at least level the playing field in terms of their academic pressures.
However, universities seemingly reject this approach and leave lower-income students out to dry. Take the recent University post of an “inspirational” video to reassure students about working alongside their studies. In the video, EU student Anna discussed managing her studies around her five jobs. FIVE JOBS. I for one do not find Anna’s story inspiring – I actually feel so sorry for her. Nobody, student or otherwise, should have five jobs. Let alone alongside a full-time qualification. For the University to endorse this level of over-working is simply outrageous. Rather than help students with the vast sums of money the University has, they instead suggest that students go out and simply work themselves to the point of exhaustion before they even come around to studying. EU students aren’t entitled to any maintenance loans, so to ask them to work five jobs alongside a degree is apparently the University’s preferred option.
There’s this very dangerous rhetoric that’s aimed at lower-income students from UK, EU and non-EU backgrounds to simply just “work harder” to keep up with the crowds. Rather than put things in place to actively help these students better, to take those pressures off them, universities instead hold up people who work unrealistic and unhealthy amounts as some sort of aspirational goal. It’s detrimental and disturbing, and I hope at some point universities reach out to offer better financial and academic support to those who need it.