Whatever the outcome of the election in the next few weeks, we’ll face a challenge in the university sector. We need the incoming government’s attention, but their priorities are likely to lie elsewhere. University finances are under great pressure, but we should also be paying serious attention to the pressure on student finances. That’s why the first thing Universities UK asked for in our Manifesto for the next government is action to increase maintenance support for students, and restore grants for those from the poorest backgrounds.

Research in the Student Academic Experience Survey found that 28% of students admitted that the cost-of-living crisis is continuing to negatively affect their student experience. This figure has risen by two per cent in the past year alone. Another worrying take-away from the study is, for many students who have to work, the mean number of hours worked per week during term time has increased to 14.5 hours, up from 11.9 in 2020.

In recent years, universities have stepped in to provide extra support to students struggling financially. From offering emergency financial assistance to providing food vouchers and access to affordable food, our universities have worked hard to ease the burden on students. The reality is, no matter how much universities step up to support these students, without significant financial support many students from low-income backgrounds will continue to struggle. It is also increasingly difficult for universities, who are themselves under pressure, to provide this sort of support.

The current maintenance support system is outdated, with students in England seeing a real term cut of just under £2,000 to their maintenance loan which has failed to keep up with inflation over the years. Another staggering fact about the maintenance system is that household income thresholds that determine which students are able to access the maximum maintenance loans have been frozen at £25,000 since 2008. Wages have increased substantially in that time, lifting more and more households over that threshold and meaning that fewer students are able to access the maximum amount of student maintenance. This year the government announced plans to increase maintenance loans for students in England for this upcoming academic year 2024/25, however the 2.5% uplift still falls way short of the current rate of inflation.

Despite this worrying trend, students from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to be enthusiastic about the transformative opportunity to go to university. Since 2005, the proportion of pupils receiving free school meals who go on to university has grown from 14% to 29% and the proportion of students from the lowest participation backgrounds has grown from 12% to 28%. Recent data has shown clearly that if you learn more, you earn more and so graduates are likely to achieve higher earnings, better health and a longer life as a result.

Expansion of the system has been game changing in terms of distribution of opportunity. More people are now attending university being the first in their family to do so. In April, we launched our campaign highlighting the impact of ‘first in the family’ (FitF) graduates. The aim of the 100 faces campaign was to showcase the transformative experience of university for first in the family students and graduates, celebrating their stories and achievements. A survey of FitF students and graduates conducted as part of the campaign found 41% saying they couldn’t have gone to university without financial support. Almost a third (30%) of FitF graduates that took part in the survey revealed that going to university was the best decision they have ever made.

The findings from the 100 Faces campaign highlight the transformative impact of higher education. However, they also serve as a stark warning: if we do not address the current maintenance system, we risk losing untapped potential.

You are still twice as likely to go to university in the UK if you are from the most advantaged social and economic group, than if you are from the least advantaged. That cannot be right. Widening participation is unfinished business, and it is our responsibility to make sure that it does not stall in the second half of the 21st century.

For me, this is not only a matter of fairness. As a society, we all need there to be a well-educated workforce. The Department for Education estimates that we will need 11 million additional graduates by 2035, and that 85% of newly created roles will require graduate level skills. We all need there to be enough doctors, nurses, dentist and teachers to ensure our public services work well. And the increase in levels of education has been the only consistent factor driving productivity growth in recent years. We can’t afford to waste talent so, as a nation, we have to work out how we can afford to financially support students while they are studying, and fund universities adequately so they get the quality education they deserve.

If we fail, there will be students who make the decision not to go to university, or who take on so much part time work that they can’t do their best academically. That failure would result in everyone being poorer in the long term – not just the individuals, but the whole country.

The opinions of guest authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Sutton Trust.

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