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The Harsh Reality of Living Off a Student Maintenance Loan

Aside from being branded as lazy and entitled, and blamed for killing the napkin industry, millennials are often associated with student debt. Final year student Julia Tinsley-Kent discusses why now more than ever, the ‘poor student’ stereotype rings painfully true, and points to ways to improve our lot.


Maintenance loans are supposed to be fair and easy to apply for – but what’s it actually like living off one?

According to the government, student loans and maintenance loans enable students, regardless of their background, to go to university. As we know, you can apply for a maintenance loan to cover day-to-day costs like rent, food and transport. Students can apply for up to £8,430 if they’re at uni outside London, and up to £10,702 in London.

However, living with a maintenance loan comes with complications, and if you’re in the process of applying for university, it’s worth enlightening yourself to the tricky realities of living with one.

How far does the money stretch?

When you start university and see your first bank balance after your maintenance loan comes in, it feels like you have unlimited funds. I remember thinking that I had so much money to throw around and, like so many other students, I settled happily into Freshers’ Week and the expensive socialising of first semester.

Alas, by mid-November the money had disintegrated. This is the moment you realise just how expensive living is when you’re not earning, and that those student loans don’t stretch as far as you’d hope.

Even now, as a final year student, I dread looking at my bank account every month, because even with careful budgeting, the money simply evaporates. And this is with far fewer nights out, and a much heavier workload than my Freshers’ week self ever knew. Just buying food for the week, and paying rent and bills can significantly drain my bank account.

“Partaking in the student experience is instrumental, but that unfortunately requires money”

Perhaps it’s a matter of working out how much everything is roughly going to cost you from start to finish. After all, university is a period where young people need to adjust to adult life and managing money.

But, as my mum once said to me, university’s a short period of time that you remember forever because it has such an influence on your character. Partaking in the student experience is instrumental, but that unfortunately requires money.

I’m not suggesting that students should be provided with a small fortune each semester, but they certainly need more disposable income, because for many, these loans are not stretching far enough, in fact they’re only providing just enough to survive. Like a friend of mine said to me once: “People on benefits get around £70 per week, but I just hope I can keep £30 a week!”

The problem with means-tested loans.

It makes sense that those who come from lower income backgrounds should be given a higher loan to ensure that they have an equal chance at university. But what if these maintenance loans aren’t encouraging poorer students to attend university, and instead it’s putting them off?

A study by the UCL Institute of Education found that students from poorer backgrounds have been deterred from applying because of the fear of student loan debt. The study found that issues with student funding have led to an increase in inequality and more students from middle to upper class backgrounds are filling the university places instead.

“Many students from lower income backgrounds counted on grants to support them. Now, they’re just faced with even more debt”

This drop in applications by students from lower income backgrounds could also be explained by the fact the government has scrapped maintenance grants. This could easily explain why there’s been such a decline, as many students from lower income backgrounds counted on grants to support them.

Now, they’re just faced with even more debt, and the thought of living the rest of your life with enormous debt hanging over you really isn’t a happy thought. It’s actually something that really gets me down a lot.

As it turns out, there’s something really unfair and disproportionate about loans.

The greatest complaint that I’ve noticed from friends is the unfairness regarding the amount of money they will receive for a semester. Maintenance loans vary depending on the amount that you, your parent, guardian, or partner earns yearly. Basically, the more your parents earn, the less money you’ll receive. Seems pretty reasonable, right?

But when you read the small print, there’s a slight complication. If your parents earn just over £30,000 a year, then your maintenance loan will be the same as someone who earns up to £35,000 a year. The idea here is that your parents give you a bit of extra money every now and then.

But if your family’s income means you qualify for the smaller loan, you’re missing out on an extra £600, and if your parents only just qualify for that earnings category, they might not be able to spare that extra cash.

“This isn’t some stereotypical, privileged millennial complaint: some students are genuinely struggling to get by, and in some cases, literally living below the poverty line”

A friend of mine is in this exact situation: her dad’s income means a smaller loan for her, but he doesn’t earn enough to be able to give her money to make up for the smaller amount. While someone on the higher end of that bracket would have way more disposable income to support their child, her dad, like many other parents, doesn’t, yet he has to support his child at university as well as other family members that depend on him. The maintenance loan was supposed to help with this.

My friend, along with so many other students, found herself in her overdraft by early November after only two months’ rent had gone from her account. This isn’t some stereotypical, privileged millennial complaint: some students are genuinely struggling to get by, and in some cases, literally living below the poverty line.

“I know first-hand that it’s not just a matter of ‘careful budgeting”

Unfortunately, I’ve seen young people drop out of uni because they can’t afford to live off their loans. Some courses have too many contact hours to get a decent paying part-time job. Instead, these students have had to return home and find a job, because their university careers, and dreams have quite literally been cut short.

Maintenance loans are meant to be about giving all bright and hopeful students an equal chance at getting a higher education. But there are obviously some huge obstacles for students and families from lower income backgrounds.

The prospect of living in enormous debt for young people is making university less appealing.

So what can be done about it?

Massive protests erupted in 2010 when the tuition fees increased, and again when maintenance grants were scrapped in 2015.

I know first-hand that it’s not just a matter of careful budgeting – it’s a genuine problem facing our generation because there are those who are really, really struggling with the amount they’re given.

Something has clearly gone wrong if students are essentially living below the poverty line and young people are being forced out of university because they can’t afford to survive.

“We need to eradicate the feeling that there is nothing after university but crippling debt”

The solution could lie in our generation’s re-enfranchisement and increased political involvement. The 18-24 demographic is the least vocal in British society, yet it’s the one that’s been at the receiving end of some pretty unfair government policies.

We need to eradicate the pessimism that’s pervasive to our generation: a pessimism that our futures are not being invested in, and the feeling that there is nothing after university but crippling debt.

If we spoke up about the realities of student loans through petitions, protests or even writing letters to local MPs, there could be the start of real change.

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