Illustration by Hannah Robinson
Universities are complex places for a lot of minority students. The University of Edinburgh’s student union has minority officers in attempt to combat the struggles faced, though there is only so much they can do if the university themselves will not cooperate and provide support. Working-class students, however, do not have one of these officers, despite making up only 18% of the student population; arguably, a minority.
So-called ‘elite’ universities are among the worst when it comes to making a university education accessible for all. Edinburgh University formerly provided bursaries for rest-of-UK student suffering financial difficulty, as part of a widening participation scheme. From 2020 onwards, this has been scrapped and replaced with a frankly insulting new scholarship scheme. This replacement reduces the amounts given significantly, and does not contain the same income breakdowns. Where previously those with a household income of £1-£16,000 would receive a bursary of £7,250 a year (2019-2020), those entering in 2020 will now receive £3000 absolute max. The new maximum household income to receive a bursary is £34,000 (to receive £1000), where before it was £35,000 (to receive £1,550).
This change means that people who (like me) could only afford to live and study in a city like Edinburgh because of this bursary scheme, are being deterred from making the choice to come here. Edinburgh rent is extortionate (over £500 per month, on average) in comparison to the rent in other university cities – despite us getting the same student finance as them. In addition, the university are pricing out working-class students via first year student accommodation, by getting rid of the cheapest buildings, and building new, state-of-the-art, unaffordable halls. The living costs of Edinburgh’s capital city are closer to those of London than Lancaster, and our SFE loan should reflect this. When it comes to SAAS, Scottish working-class students are even worse off than rest-of-UK students. Though they are not paying fees, they are still paying to live, and their loans should, again, reflect this.
Students are having to work full-time alongside our studies, in order to afford to live and eat and buy books, let alone have the ‘student experience’ that our wealthier peers are having. When reading week comes around and they are all going skiing, we use that week to pick up extra shifts at work. People will always have different lives, different experiences of life etc., but this is impacting our studies, and it feels deliberate. Having to work so much, to stress about paying our rent, to not be able to afford to take spontaneous trips home when we feel down etc., has a huge impact on our mental health. Where working-class students already feel like they are playing catch-up at these elite universities, we should not have to deal with the added burden of financial and mental strain – not to mention the fact that we are getting into the most debt in the long-run, as we are taking out the biggest loans (with interest).
At a great deal of state schools in underrepresented communities, university is something that feels out of reach. In recent years, it is again moving further away from us. Maintenance grants were scrapped, access bursaries are decreased, and loans have gained interest. Working-class students are struggling. Our mental health must be considered; at university we are supposed to be worrying about making deadlines and making friends, but we are worrying about so much more than this. Universities should be making effort to reduce the barriers that separate people from different backgrounds into different grade boundaries. People who are more than capable of getting the top grades and the top jobs are missing out because they cannot afford to spend all their time focusing on their studies and working unpaid internships. Maintenance grants should be reinstated and universities should make every effort to make everyone’s university experience, and access to a complete education, begin on equal footing. This includes not only financial aid, but also access to thorough mental health support where it is needed – this means more than 3 free ‘therapy’ sessions and a re-direction to professional support that we cannot afford.