Jo Johnson and Martin Lewis debating these issues at the 2017 Conservative Party Conference, chaired by Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI

Martin Lewis, the Money Saving Expert, has been on the warpath in recent months regarding parental contributions towards students’ living costs.

He has, quite rightly, pointed out that – for all but the poorest students – the maintenance loan system rests upon an assumption that parents will contribute to living costs.

The numbers can be big. Martin Lewis recommends that the Government should write to parents to tell them how much they are expected to pay.

One of his examples of what such a letter might say runs as follows: ‘Students — your maintenance loan is £5,479 a year. This is less than the full loan and we expect your parents to make up at least the £5,523 difference.’

These are real numbers, although they are also at the top end for they represent both the minimum loan and the maximum assumed parental contribution for a student living away from home and studying in London, where the costs of living are assumed to be greater.

It is hard to quibble with the basic points here.

  • Many students don’t have enough money to live on.
  • Many are not even receiving the minimum income suggested by the Government.
  • This is because their parents are not paying what is assumed of them.
  • The Government is reluctant to tell the parents clearly about the numbers involved.

The final point is perhaps understandable in political terms. If the Government suddenly demands the parent(s) of a student pay(s) £5,000 over, this would reduce their spending power considerably even though their children would benefit from having more cash in their pockets.

I agree with Martin on the importance of this issue. About the only place where this problem may be worse than he states is in how old it is.

In a recent article on the problem in the Financial Times, he wrote: ‘This lack of transparency isn’t new. On the back of the large increase in the proportion of expected parental contribution, I wrote to the universities minister Mr Johnson a few months ago, suggesting it was time to clear it up.’ (My italics.)

In fact, the problem is decades old and – arguably – as ancient as the student finance system itself.

Here is an extract from the November 1988 paper announcing that the Government of the day would introduce ‘Top-Up Loans for Students’.

There is one intriguing difference about the arguments made in this document and today’s furore about student finance. Then, the arguments rested on a decent and recent survey of students’ income and expenditure patterns.

Now, as we have repeatedly pointed out (see, for example, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/delays-uk-government-research-worse-than-embarrassing), we are debating student finance in the comparative dark.

This is because the last Student Income and Expenditure Survey to be published covering England is for the period 2011/12, which is before £9,000 fees came in.

A survey was conducted for 2014/15 but we are – unacceptably – still waiting for the results to be published. There can be no excuse for such a delay when student finance is under such debate.

Finally, we should note how this whole issue shows up how students are treated in different ways for different purposes. They are simultaneously treated as: a) children who are dependent on their parents for finance; and b) as adults whose parents cannot, for example, legally be informed about any serious mental health issues.

Perhaps that is how it should be, but it is still worthy of note.