Some of you may or may not have seen a petition going around Facebook regarding Universal Credit and students. If you have then you may be wondering what the fuss is about. Let me tell you a story. I could go on forever, but I’ll try and keep it short.
I am one of a cohort of students at St Andrews who are from a disadvantaged background, a parent, a mature student and/or disabled. All things that on their own make university difficult to reach, without having to struggle to maintain your place. There are many of us, not just me, who are now experiencing being a student under Universal Credit and it is an absolute nightmare!
Most of you may have heard of Universal Credit and how the government want to make work pay and improve people’s lives. It sounds fantastic in theory-bringing unemployment benefits and in work benefits all under the same umbrella to reduce uncertainty in times of change but that is not how it is working. It is causing uncertainty and distress for many which no doubt you’re aware of- food bank usage goes up whenever UC is implemented.
I know by now you’re asking what the specific issues are concerning students and Universal Credit and why they are so unique. Firstly, I’ll try and explain how it works when you’re employed. When your wages are reported to the Department of Work and Pensions by HMRC they use a formula to calculate how much support you’re entitled to, disregarding the first £198, dividing the rest by by 0.63. The figure they get from this is then deducted from your overall max entitlement. For students, however, it is much more complicated- even to case managers, so awards can vary wildly. I myself have had three calculations this month, £94, £5 and finally they decided on £0. That is what I as a lone parent get every month until July.
They take your full student finance for the academic year and divide it by ten giving you your monthly figure. This figure then has £110 disregarded each month and the rest is deducted pound for pound unlike wages which are deducted 63p in the pound. All because student loans are apparently unearned income. Loans which we pay back with interest are unearned income! There are other components which can be disregarded but these seem to be at the case managers discretion as nobody fully understands the guidelines. There are also issues surrounding students in Scotland being left for a month in summer with no income whatsoever due to the calculation guidelines being primarily set up assuming all student finance is the same as the English system. Additionally, the lone parent grant in Scotland is not disregarded but the parent’s learner allowance in England is, despite both having the same purpose and similar amounts.
Students all over the country are voicing the same concerns that they may not be able to continue their studies due to these changes. The new system is leaving some of the most disadvantaged students up to £200-300 a month worse off. It is not right that people who are willing to work hard to improve not just their lives, but their family’s lives are being penalized and pushed back into a cycle of low paid jobs and potentially a lifetime of dependence on in work benefits to top up the meagre wages they receive.
Students, like myself, at St Andrews are better placed than most students due to the fact we get exceptional support from the University but we are still left in a position where we have to worry every day, not just about coursework, but whether we have enough money to provide for our families. I urge you all to sign the open letter that is being circulated (linked here) and to sign the petition (linked here) calling for the government to review the guidelines on student income, this absolutely must change so that families are not trapped in this cycle.