To some the stereotype of the ‘student life’ is endearing – sitting around eating packets of noodles or cold baked beans in your student house while wearing your coat to keep out the cold and save some money. However, when you take off the rose-tinted glasses, it sounds a lot like living in poverty and there is a real suggestion that this so-called ‘lifestyle’ is causing a rise in mental health issues among young people.
Of course, nobody really wants to live the stereotypical life of the ‘poor student’ – surely we would all rather have enough money to eat at fancy restaurants each night, shop where we want, and not have to make tough decisions about whether to compromise our studies to get a job in order to survive. However, the reality for many students is very different to this ideal.
Lorenza Antonucci’s new book, ‘Student Lives In Crisis: Deepening Inequality In Times Of Austerity,’ studies student experiences in England, Sweden and Italy, and in doing shows how the current system in Britain has led to a reliance on family support, which in turn has a “direct effect on the reproduction of inequality.”
Antonucci, a senior lecturer in social policy and sociology at Teesside University, speaks of a “broken promise of higher education” where “the grants have gone. The loans are not enough and they [the Student Loans Company] assume that families will contribute. But families don’t have the amount of money that the state assumes they have.”
She continued, “The state assumes the family will give a decent amount of money, but debt or loss of employment within the family does not give the assumed amount,” adding, “There is a relation between what happens inside and outside of the lecture room.”
The stress of coping with the financial implications of student life is not just causing grades to drop, but is also creating a rise in mental health and wellbeing issues among students. In fact, Antonucci’s study found that a third of students in England have wellbeing issues, as she explained, “There is incredible demand for support. Students who have fewer resources are stressed and feel guilty that their family are in debt or have to mobilise their inheritance, and this puts a pressure on young people at university.”
While supporters of the current system argue that it creates the fairest way to fund university education Antonucci points to a two-tiered system where only those from the very wealthiest backgrounds enjoy a positive outcome from university. She argues that unless the student funding model takes debt and the availability of support into account, it will continue to push students towards wellbeing woes.
The fact is that, despite the stereotypes, there is no glamour in being a poor student. Unless real life factors such as debt are taken into account it is hard to see how the assessment system for university funding and support can be justified. Ignoring such real-life financial issues faced by students and their families creates a situation where students become concerned about asking for money and instead strive to cope by themselves. This has led to a rise in reports of students facing mental health problems, wellbeing issues, and even in some cases to taking extreme measures to make some money.
Ignoring the problem and pretending everything is fine does nothing for the health of young people at university or to ease the pressure on many families who have been told they should be able to support their children through university. With rising debts and no guarantee that a university degree will actually lead to a better life, is it any wonder more young people are looking for an alternative career path?
Alternatives include sponsored degrees where your tuition is paid for you, apprenticeships which offer experience, training, a salary and often a route direct into your chosen career, and distance learning – which can often be much cheaper than traditional university. However, unless young people are made aware of their options, too many will continue to choose a route that may not be the best for them.