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Why the answer to the $64,000 question is … $64,000: How much do students need to live on?

  • 9 May 2024
  • By Nick Hillman

We have – finally – today achieved something I have long wanted HEPI to do: we have taken a blank sheet of paper and worked out how much money students need to live on.

By ‘need to live’ we don’t mean just avoiding poverty; nor do we mean living in plush comfort. We mean having around enough income to be safe, warm and decently fed, to be able to buy necessary course-related items and to be able to get involved with the non-academic side of university life, perhaps by joining a society or two.

All the recent major pieces of work we have been able to find on student maintenance levels, such as the official Student Income and Expenditure Survey or the National Student Money Survey, do two things: they ask students how much income they have; and they ask students what they spend it on.

Such studies are better than nothing, even though the Student Income and Expenditure Survey seems to be largely ignored by policymakers these days, unlike in its earlier years. But they omit something that is so important it amounts to a fatal flaw: what if the amount of money students receive is, quite simply, not enough?

Knowing how someone spends their income, X, is of limited use if X is not enough to enable them to play a part in the community in which they live.

So our approach has been different. It has entailed going back to first base. We have worked with the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University, who now work all over the world but first made their name producing A Minimum Income Standard for the United Kingdom (funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation). This has proved incredibly influential: when I visited a food bank to see their work, I was struck by how the staff were using this resource both to understand their clients’ needs and to lobby policymakers.

The Loughborough research team have now used their years of experience, their existing minimum income methodology as well as intelligence gathered from bespoke student focus groups across Great Britain (in England, Scotland and Wales) to produce the HEPI / TechnologyOne Student Minimum Income Standard.

The level of granularity in the research is extraordinary. Can students reasonably expect to have a bath mat or a door mat? Should each student have one set of saucepans or should there be just one set to share across all housemates? Given different recommended calorie intakes, should male and female students be expected to spend the same amount on food? These are the sorts of questions that the researchers have grappled with – and resolved.

It is important to note that the end result, which suggests each student studying outside London needs a little over £18,000 to live with dignity, is not a measure of absolute poverty. It is not a measure of what you need to avoid penury. Instead, it assumes students have one short UK holiday with friends each year, that a shared house should have one television with a basic Netflix subscription and that students need a smart phone and a laptop to fully participate in their courses.

The goal of the research is not to tell us what items are necessary to dodge deep poverty; it is to reveal what students need if they are to get the most out of their education. We all stand to benefit from this, for today’s students will go on to be the employees, managers and leaders of tomorrow.

It is also important for policymakers to know that we are not saying we think the Government should cover the full £18,000+ (or £21,000k+ for those studying in London). The optimum balance between grants, loans, paid employment and parental contributions is a question for another day and one we plan to do further work on. It is also an issue on which wise minds may differ, and there also may not necessarily be one right answer for the whole UK, given different priorities in the devolved areas relative to Westminster.

HEPI is a small charity with nothing like the resources of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, yet this sort of detailed research does not come cheap. So we are delighted to have worked on the Student Minimum Income Standard with TechnologyOne, the Australian-founded Software-as-a-Service technology company that already works with many UK universities, and who are as keen as we are to know more about how students can be helped to thrive. Neither TechnologyOne nor HEPI has had any editorial control over the numbers we are putting out – quite rightly – but these numbers simply would not exist without the generous sponsorship we have received which allowed the work to go ahead and for which we are very grateful. At HEPI’s end, the publication also would not exist without the wise oversight of Josh Freeman (HEPI’s Policy Manager) as well as Lucy Haire (HEPI’s Director of Partnerships).

We know from the conversations we have already had about this project that many people will respond by asking ‘but what about … ?’ What about students in more expensive cities or in cheaper cities? What about students with greater health needs? What about postgraduates or distance learners? These are all valid points, given our final number is an average for a particular type of student (a second or third-year undergraduate in off-street housing).

Yet we know more today than we knew yesterday about students’ true living costs and the policymakers who decide how much maintenance support students should receive have to deal in averages too – for example, England’s current maximum maintenance package comes with only a limited number of variables (most notably living at home or away and studying in London or elsewhere). Moreover, HEPI – and I am sure Loughborough University – would be pleased to expand the project to other groups if additional funding were to become available.

Finally, to explain the title of this blog. ‘The $64,000 Question’ began on a 1950s general knowledge game show in the United States. The prize money doubled as the questions got harder, with the final question having a top prize of $64,000. It turns out that, at current exchange rates, the Student Minimum Income Standard for a three-year degree totals $64,000. That is a number which should be imprinted on the minds of parents, professors and policymakers.

If you are reading this early in the morning of Thursday, 9 May 2024, then there is still time to register to attend our 9am webinar on the Student Minimum Income Standard here.

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