“Student finance systems are far from perfect”SELWYN COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE / FLICKR

When arriving at Cambridge in October, I was surprised by the amount of money I was expected to spend before receiving my student finance. Between paying for a gown (£35), Freshers’ Week activities (£25), and a weekly shop (£40), I had spent over £100 over the course of a single week. Had I not saved up by working over the summer, I simply would not have had this money to spare. What’s more, I had already found myself in a minority of students sincerely concerned about whether they’d be able to afford to continue living in Cambridge.

I had already found myself in a minority of students sincerely concerned about whether they’d be able to afford to continue living in Cambridge

Recently, the discussions around maintenance loans that I have encountered have centred around it being unfair that some students receive more money than others because everyone faces the same costs. However, to call the variety in maintenance unfair shows ignorance to the extra costs poorer students, the ones that receive higher maintenance, face.

Often, poorer students will be using their maintenance to buy equipment, help out at home and cover travel costs, costs that richer students tend to take for granted. Even if poorer students are left better off because of their higher maintenance, it is unfair to say that maintenance loans should exclusively be used for essential costs. This may be the first time in a poorer student’s life they are financially stable and have substantial disposable income.

However, the maintenance system is by no means perfect. Categorising British living costs into ‘London’ and ‘other’ is most definitely not reflective of reality; granting a higher loan to students moving to London to study but not those who are from London is illogical, as their household income is unlikely to stretch as far in London as it would elsewhere; a lack of sources of emergency money for when a student’s financial situation suddenly changes after the initial application for their loan lets the most vulnerable students down. Nevertheless, replacing a means-tested approach with a single, universal maintenance loan would only worsen the situation. What could alleviate the financial strain on these students, however, is the University’s bursary support.

If their household were to earn £1 more, they would receive only £2,380, a £255 decrease for a £1 increase in income

Although Cambridge bursaries are also means-tested, the way they are distributed is particularly unfair, leading to massive differences in bursary support between students with similar household incomes. By failing to help all vulnerable students, the bursary system increases financial inequality among the University’s students.

At Cambridge, bursaries generally come in two forms: the Cambridge bursary (for all students, automatically given to you based on your student finance details) and college bursaries, with terms differing between colleges. A directory of college finance pages can be found here, along with information about department specific funds. While the University offers hardship funds for students in need, the current Cambridge bursary system is especially questionable. For example, a student with a household income of £30,000 will receive £2,635, but if their household were to earn £1 more, they would receive only £2,380, a £255 decrease for a £1 increase in income – around two weeks of rent. By comparison, the maximum change in maintenance support a £1 change in income would incur is £8.


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While the University has recently revealed that it is introducing a “sliding-scale” bursary system, it is unknown as of yet whether college bursary systems will all follow suit. This is a vital step in ensuring financial stability for students across the University, as current disparity among colleges’ bursary support systems unfairly affects students’ lives simply based on their college. Take Magdalene, for instance, where a £1 change in income can lead to a dramatic £1,500 difference in bursary support.

The student finance systems I have encountered are clearly far from perfect, both nationally and at a university level. However, to argue that what needs changing is the distribution of a higher maintenance loan to those students that are most in need is incorrect: what must change is the the University’s approach to bursary support. The flaws of the maintenance system require that the University accept its responsibility to provide fair bursary support for all its students.

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