NEW research published by the Sutton Trust reveals the extent to which the poorest students are being hit hardest by debt and cost of living challenges.

Since the abolition of maintenance grants in England, students from lower income backgrounds have been leaving university with the highest levels of debt. New analysis by London Economics for the Sutton Trust estimates that poorer students could graduate with £60,100 of debt, 38 per cent higher than the £43,600 for those from wealthier families, with the gap largely driven by the need to take out maintenance loans.

Despite racking up the largest debts, students from lower income families, who are less able to rely on family members for support, are also struggling to cover their basic living costs, as the level of government loans has not kept pace with rocketing inflation. Students living away from home outside of London can currently receive a maximum maintenance loan of £9,978 per academic year, but their average level of spending just on essentials such as food and rent is £11,400.

Essential costs are higher than the maximum available loan for 57 per cent of students. For 19 per cent of students housing costs alone are higher than the available loan, and a third (33 per cent) of students from working class families have skipped meals to save on food costs. Others have taken on extra part-time work, with almost a quarter of students reporting they had missed a course deadline because of their job.

As students from disadvantaged backgrounds are also the most debt averse, there is a risk that the current system will increasingly deter poorer students from attending university, or restrict their options to those closer to home. Young people in school are increasingly concerned about their future cost of living – of those with financial worries about university, the proportion citing the cost of living has increased from 17 per cent in 2014 to 29 per cent in 2023.

As well as the amount being insufficient, eligibility for maintenance loans is also shrinking. Parental income thresholds, used to determine the income levels at which parents are expected to contribute to their child’s living costs at university, have remained frozen. If these thresholds had increased with inflation since 2016, families on £32,535 or less would be eligible for the maximum loan, compared to the current much lower threshold of £25,000. This locked out an estimated 30,000 students starting university last autumn from taking out the maximum level of support, putting more pressure on themselves and their families.

The Sutton Trust has therefore put together a package of proposals, with modelling that shows how one of these proposals, alongside other changes in the system, could be achieved with little or no additional costs to public finances. This involves:

  • The re-introduction of maintenance grants for poorer students in England to reduce debt and better align with the approach in the rest of the UK.
  • An increase in the overall amount of maintenance available, to better reflect students’ costs.
  • A widening of eligibility for support, by increasing the parental income thresholds used to determine how much support a student can receive – these loan thresholds have been frozen since 2016 despite rampant inflation.
  • Changes to repayment terms to make the system more progressive, with lower overall repayments for lower income graduates, and higher for higher earners in the long term. However monthly repayments would reduce, meaning an effective ‘tax cut’ for all graduates in terms of their monthly outgoings on graduation.

The current Conservative Government has not announced any plans to reform student maintenance, with levels only due to rise by 2.5 per cent in 2024/25, still far behind recent inflation. The Labour party has indicated that it would reform the student finance system, stating that it would “ensure we support the aspiration to go to university” in government. However, it has largely focused on potential changes to the repayment system and has not made any commitments regarding the amount of maintenance support students receive, or on the re-introduction of maintenance grants in England.

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder of the Sutton Trust and Founder of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “It’s outrageous that the poorest students are racking up the highest levels of debt. These students are the most debt-averse, so under the current system this increasingly deters them from going to university.

“All political parties must commit to re-introducing maintenance grants, and overall levels of maintenance should be increased, so that students can meet their basic needs without graduating with excessive debt. There’s absolutely no excuse for failing to create a fairer system.”

* Read: Reforming student maintenance here.

* Source: The Sutton Trust