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University isn’t a level playing field

By Erin Aziz

Writer Erin Aziz analyses the persistence of economic inequalities on campus.

The concept of a level playing field is somewhat utopian in any stage of life, but arguably university students experience this imbalance more severely than in other aspects of life. Varied economic backgrounds cause some students to work full-time to cover living costs, while others never seek employment during the course of their studies.

In 2014, The Guardian reported that 1 in 7 students worked full time while studying, which leads me to wonder about the difficulties experienced by the minority of working students in 2022. Aside from the obvious struggle to balance work and university, free time is another consideration. Students with less free time are more likely to become isolated from their peers, which puts them at a higher risk for mental health issues. All of these factors influence quality of work at university, meaning that students who have to work to get by are more likely to achieve lower grades. Ultimately, this imbalance must surely impact the prospects of these students. 

With lower incomes, students may also be at a higher risk for health issues, particularly during the cost of living crisis. Even if students find affordable housing, which is by no means a guarantee,  the soaring energy prices may force them to lower their consumption of heating and utilities to the detriment of their health – and, as a consequence, their academics. 

While the student loan system supposedly offers support to those who require it through enhanced loans, it’s naive to assume this can level the playing field. The system fails to account for the complexity of the issue. The main factors for receiving enhanced loan payments (according to the Student Loans Company) are household income, disability and carer status. While these criteria are undoubtedly helpful in compensating students from less fortunate backgrounds, it is impossible to level the playing field with such simplistic measures of a student’s financial situation. Students with an identical household income may receive very different levels of financial support from their parents or guardians, by virtue of a range of circumstances not accounted for in the aforementioned criteria.

A partial solution to these economic divisions and their negative consequences would be to reform the student loan system further. The recent reforms, which saw the earnings threshold for repayments cut to £25,000, will make the financial burden placed on students even more intensive. The current misallocation of funding plays a significant role in the imbalance between university students, causing the university experience to be tainted for many due to financial pressure. By increasing the specificity of the criteria for enhancement of loans, financial aid could be more accurately directed to those who need it most. 

However, these reforms cannot fully correct the problems caused by economic disparities, as the lack of a level playing field is not a phenomenon exclusive to students. The financial imbalance experienced by students is a symptom of a wider problem. In reality, if we are to eliminate the economic divisions, government policy must be implemented alongside the suggested reforms to student finance in order to tackle the problem at its root. Government subsidisation of tuition fees, housing, and renewable energy would all work towards tackling inequality. 

It unfortunately seems that these imbalances among students are unlikely to be realised and addressed in the near future. While certain fundamental policy changes are required, it is doubtful that the current conservative government can be relied on for these changes. Reforms to student finance are indisputably necessary if we are to have a truly level playing field for students, and such a responsibility lies with the government – who need to step up soon.


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