St Margarets parent Hilary Thomson looks at the student living costs behind the headlines
As you wave a fond (or relieved) farewell to your son or daughter as they leave for university this month you may well be thinking nostalgically of your own student days. However, while your child’s student experience may resemble yours in some respects (alcohol, music, an all-consuming interest in their social life, a new life in a new town) there are two respects in which it will be very different indeed: the cost of going away to university and the challenge of money management.
While student life was heavily subsidised for the previous generation, a brief visit to any UK campus quickly reveals how the tide has turned.
“What’s a refectory?” said my son as I peered at the Starbucks coffee shop on his campus, where a coffee appeared to cost … well … the same as it would cost in Richmond.
From there on in, despite blandishments of ‘student deals’ your child is essentially a captive cash cow, often paying over the odds at a campus supermarket and commercial rates for everything from leisure events to laundry, beer to bus fares.
Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours’ recent programme on the cost of a university education, I pointed out that amidst the hubbub about £9,000 tuition fees, pundits and parents alike often overlook the sheer scale of students’ everyday living costs.
You don’t have to go as far as the campus to see that in the world of student finance, the only direction is up. If you have a 6th form child aiming for university, I advise you to sit down when first looking at campus accommodation (hall) costs.
“Conveniently located on the edge of the campus” = nowhere near the campus and too far to cycle, so bus travel will cost around £30 a week.
“A traditional hall set in beautiful, wooded grounds” = even further away and so expensive you wonder if there is a printing error.
“An exciting new development opened in 2015” = a kind of Grand Designs of eyepopping cost. Try to find a convincing reason why this might be a bad idea for your child. How about “I’ve heard “Costalot Hall is really cliquey and full of rich kids from the Cotswolds”. Be as inventive as necessary and don’t let the truth stand in your way.
“Recently refurbished” = a pebble dashed gulag dimly lit with blueish, low-cost lighting and surrounded by overflowing bins. Almost affordable, so you need to persuade your child that they will relish its relaxed, anything-goes atmosphere. “Look!” you can say, “They’re allowed to dry their washing on their windowsills - isn’t that nice?”
Joking aside, be prepared for campus accommodation that costs from £80 to over £200 a week (and has to be paid for in the holidays, too) and private landlord accommodation that (once bills have been factored in) can easily cost more and usually involves a one-year contract. No wonder investing in student accommodation is proving an increasingly popular source of second income.
Does this really matter? After all, parents who are supporting their children by supplementing their student loans are among the better off, aren’t they?
Well, actually, that isn’t necessarily the case.
A quick look at the Government’s own Student Loan Calculator for students starting this September reveals some surprising figures.
Joint parent income of £25,000 or less means a child going to university outside London would qualify for a Fees Loan of up to £9,000 (this is available to all) plus a Maintenance Loan (intended for accommodation/living costs) of £4,047 and a non-repayable Maintenance Grant of £3,387. A student qualifying for this ‘maximum’ finance package may also qualify for additional bursaries or scholarships.
From there on, every extra £1,000 of joint parental income starts to whittle this figure down. For children of parents enjoying the largesse of a £45,000 income between them, the Maintenance Loan is £5,519 but there is no Maintenance Grant whatsoever. They and their parent(s) somehow have to make up the difference. And of course many do not succeed, accounting for the 7.7 per cent of new student entrants from low income groups who quit their university compared with 5.4 per cent of their more affluent peers (statistics from Office for Fair Access).
Another surprise is that having more than one child at university (and with the increasing popularity of four-year courses it’s perfectly possible to have three) cuts no ice with Student Finance England, nor does the fact that a London mortgage may be swallowing up a sizeable percentage of your monthly income.
The current situation means there is a huge ‘squeezed middle’ of parents who earn too much for their children to qualify for the non-repayable Maintenance Grant and too little to be able to supplement the Maintenance Loan as well as help their children with their general living costs.
According to July’s Budget this is set to change for those going to university in 2016, which promises a ‘new loan, specifically for lower income students … worth more than £8,200 a year’. In other words, £8,200 to cover rent and all other living costs.
Which sounds like a plan, until you consider that, according to Santander’s latest report on the cost of university (September 2014) students already spend an average of £9,500 on their rent and living costs. Yes, they can top it up with vacation and part time work, but that’s still quite a gap to fill.
Which leads us back to … money and its management.
How financially savvy is your child? How capable are they of sticking to a budget when they leave home and how hot are their employability skills when it comes to getting part time and vacation work?
In 2012 I and another St Margarets parent, Lucy Timms, founded Headstart Uni, which provides information and guidance for children aiming for university and their parents.
Our friendly, informal workshops help parents through the maze of information surrounding university entry and student finance. We also run pre-university workshops and Smart Shopping evenings for their children about understanding money, banking, credit and budgeting - and sourcing and securing that vital part time or vacation work.
And because financially responsible teenagers will hopefully take the habit with them when they leave home, our new workshop for parents ‘Raising a Financially Savvy Child’ tackles the issue of money management and budgeting for teenagers from the age of 14+.
We look at the pros and cons of banking and saving services for young people, including student bank accounts. We talk about how to encourage financial responsibility and practical budgeting, ways they can find and secure part time employment, the interview skills employers are looking for now and the behaviours that will help their child succeed at work. We also cover employment law as it applies to young people and provide plenty of take-home information about local employers, rates of pay and information about tax and national insurance as they apply to school and university students.
In short, your best insurance against boomerang kids.
All our workshops take place in Twickenham and include wine, soft drinks, nibbles and as much time as you want to find the answers you need.
If you’d like to know more, please visit www.headstartuni.co.uk or call us now on 020 8744 3038 for more information.