Wessex Scene Investigates: Student Poverty and Class Divisions


Although there is a lot of dialogue around the impact of student debt, there is comparatively little about the poverty students face on a day-to-day basis.

Whether it be the flawed rationale of defining students’ maintenance loan entitlements on their parents’ income, the fact maintenance loans are loans at all or the continuous barriers working class students face even when in higher education, one thing is clear: class divisions are rife, especially in redbrick, Russell Group universities like Southampton. This investigation considers how poverty and class divisions specifically impact the student community of Southampton, as we try and gauge the different student demographics and their perceptions on certain class issues. Over 300 students in total responded to our survey. Here are the findings.

Our first question centred around where students went to secondary school. The most popular answer was state school, with 39.3% respondents reporting they attended there. In comparison, only 12.9% of respondents reportedly went to private/independent schools. Although this is a fairly high number, state school being the most popular options suggests that despite Southampton being a Russell Group, they do not frown upon students who have had a state education – or, at least, not to the same extent as universities like Oxford or Cambridge.

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However, with 73.9% of students reporting they were not entitled to school meals in comparison to the 20.1% that were, it is clear that despite their state education, the vast majority of students surveyed did not experience financial hardship or poverty during their early years, meaning that poverty presumably was not a barrier to their academic success. With 2.4 million families in the UK being reported as separated in 2017/2018, it is interesting to note that, in contrast to this, 64.2% of respondents reported that prior to university, they lived in a dual-parent household/nuclear family setting. This dissonance between national statistics and our own survey in turn suggests that students from single parent households are less likely to study at Southampton.

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It can be suggested that the reason for this is rooted in finances, with less than half of single parent households nationally paying child support in 2017/2018, which then suggests that students brought up in a nuclear family setting have a slight financial advantage. Subsequently, it is likely that factors associated with having a nuclear family setup – such as two incomes coming into the household – contributed to a higher overall income for these families and thereby making it easier for such students to attend university in comparison to those from single parent households. Although, it is worth noting that over a quarter (25.4%) of respondents also reported that they live in a single parent household, suggesting that this barrier is not necessarily impossible to overcome depending on students’ individual situations.

Backing up the idea that the majority of students surveyed come from financially privileged backgrounds is the fact that over half (52.7%) of those surveyed live in a mortgaged property, whilst a further 27.1% of those surveyed live with families who own their own property.

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In comparison, only 9.9% of those surveyed grew up in council-owned properties, whilst only 9.6% grew up in rented accommodation. With most families of the students surveyed being in the position to make these long-term financial investments, it follows that 63.4% of those surveyed did not have any live-in family members who were in receipt of Universal Credit or Jobseekers Allowance.

However, despite these students having a lot of middle-class qualities and a presumably large income at home, a large percentage of them (37.6%) identified themselves as being from a working class background, although the most popular option by a slim margin at 39.3% was to identify as middle class.

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It can be argued that the large proportion of students identifying themselves as working class despite the middle class qualities of the majority’s financial background implies a lack of knowledge about class definitions and what it means to be working class.

Yet, on the flip side of the coin, it is worth noting that 46.9% of students surveyed reported that they were First Generation students, meaning that they were the first in their family to go to university. This then suggests that the label of working class, despite the wealth a lot of these students come from is justified based on their parents’ occupations and own backgrounds.

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Summing up the issue seen above, one student commented that they’re ‘not sure working / middle class are clearly separated anymore.’

Adding to this interpretation, another respondent suggested that ‘income and the class you perceive yourself to be don’t always correlate’, noting that they come from a family ‘with a working class income and middle class priorities’.

Furthermore, another student commented that they were ‘not sure what social class [they]would fit in to’, arguing that ‘going to university makes your class level increase.’

A further student raised the interesting point that ‘class may be linked to race and ethnicity as well as income’.

They said that:

I find the question about being a first generation university student interesting, given that both my parents are university educated, but because their qualifications aren’t recognised (they’re from Nigeria) I’m counted as a first generation student. In addition, although they would be considered middle class in Nigeria due to their ideals, this is simply ignored in the UK due to assumptions about my ethnic background.

What these student opinions and the dissonance between class-identification and financial backgrounds in this survey show is that the question of how a student’s financial background contributes to their class identity is much more complicated than it appears at first glance. Financial factors alone are not enough to suitably identify a student’s class, although what is abundantly clear is that from a solely financial perspective, a lot of the students surveyed are considerably privileged in that regard.

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Furthering this investigation, we decided to look at students’ current financial backgrounds.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of students – 86.5% to be exact – had financial support from Student Finance England, but what was peculiar was the fact that the most popular maintenance loan amount according to our survey was the maximum student loan, with 25.1% of students saying that they got £8,944 per academic year.

Taking into account the fact that these loans are usually means-tested based on parental income, this result being the most popular is surprising to say the least, as it implies that a large proportion of students come from families with lower levels of parental income, which then clashes with previous data patterns that suggest students at this university mostly come from financially secure backgrounds. With this seemingly anomalous result, it can be argued that the issue of class is a lot more nuanced than it seems on the surface.

Meanwhile, 15.2% of students were on the other end of the spectrum, claiming that they received no maintenance loan. This could be for a variety of reasons, including coming from abroad to study, living in the local area or simply not needing it. As expected, other students taking the survey congregated towards the middle of the scale, suggesting that they get somewhere between the minimum and maximum amount of means-tested student loans.

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However, when it comes to means-tested bursaries such as the Student Support Fund, 64% of those surveyed said that they had never used the fund before. This then suggests that, at least in this sample, whilst Southampton students may not necessarily be ‘well off’ (which is why some of them receive the maximum student loan), they aren’t in dire financial straits: an argument supported further by the fact that 94.7% of those surveyed confirmed that they had never taken out a short-term/payday loan to support themselves.

Indeed, the second part of this survey makes it clear that the majority of those surveyed are almost completely financially independent from their parents, with most seemingly living off their student loan alone (41.6%) whilst a smaller demographic worked to support their studies (33.3%). Most students surveyed also seem to have minimal issues in meeting their financial obligations, with the majority of them never being late with paying bills (69.3%), never borrowing money from loved ones to make ends meet (49.8%) and never having to skip meals due to financial issues (52.5%).

Combining these findings with the first part of this survey, it is clear that the majority of Southampton students surveyed, both in their past and in the present, have not experienced significant financial barriers or issues related to poverty in either their past or their present. Whilst the findings suggest that a huge factor in their current financial stability is a reliance on the maintenance loan system, they equally imply that the demographic surveyed mostly come from financially and personally advantaged backgrounds. The fact that we have such minimal data on students from more diverse, working class backgrounds suggests that this is either a very small demographic at the University or one that isn’t reached at all due to the financial barriers associated with higher education.

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However, some students with significant financial struggles did make their views known to us, with one student explaining: ‘If I didn’t have a job I wouldn’t be able to afford food and pay my bills’.

Another student explains that they had to take a gap year ‘purely because I was unable to afford university since my loan only covers the very cheapest accommodation and leaves no money for food. I had to work full time for the whole year to save whilst still giving money to family to pay bills’.

Noting the dissonance between their own experience in comparison to other students, they add that they ‘still have to work alongside my degree to have enough money to live whilst flatmates receive £75 a week from family.’

Summing up the issue of how student poverty can get in the way of university studies, one student argues that ‘realistically, there isn’t enough time to work and get a decent grade. It’s a struggle.’

As well as struggling to strike the balance, survey respondents discussed the flawed processes of institutions like Student Finance England and the Department of Work and Pensions. On the latter, one student noted that ‘if the DWP had done their job, I would have had more support.’

Meanwhile, on the former, another student had this to say:

My mother’s living situation changed dramatically in my final year of study, resulting in a lack of application for my student finance. So they could only offer me the lowest amount, even though 2 years prior I had the highest amount and £3000 bursary each year and have worked all throughout my studies since I was 14. Although student finance wouldn’t help, the student support fund allowed me to have a lot less stress in my final year. Although it’s still a huge amount of money less, my student finance and SSF now only just about covers my rent. So any food, uni or living costs come straight from my wages, which is hard pressure in third year.

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Although a lot of students rely on student finance, they are also vocal about the misgivings of the system, with the student’s story above being a prime example of why the maintenance loan system needs reform. Indeed, with most of our respondents (66.3%) agreeing that the ways in which maintenance loans are calculated needs rethinking, it is evident that many students believe that the current financial support system for students does not fully take into account the nuanced nature of family lives. So, whilst struggling students may not be the majority, the comments we receive do highlight the fact that more students than we know of have had to make considerable sacrifices in order to achieve a University degree, whether that be through taking a gap year or working alongside their studies. A lot of these students also allude to some of the failures prevalent in the systems that are meant to be put in place to support them, such as the DWP and SFE. We will consider student opinions on some of these issues as well as getting further insight into how class dynamics have an impact on one’s university experience in the final part of this survey.

When it comes to feeling discriminated against for their class, over half of those surveyed (54.6%) said they had never felt discriminated against due to their social class. For those who did experience discrimination, they revealed that they were most likely to face it from those their own age such as friends (27.4%) and academic peers (26.4%). With most students being of a fairly fortunate background/social class, the fact that discrimination levels are fairly low is not surprising. However, what is most surprising is that classism appears to be most prevalent amongst people their own age, especially since university is meant to be a time of expanding your mind and becoming more politically aware. The fact that classism appears to be most prominent amongst young people suggests that more compassionate education around these issues in early life might be needed, and further suggests a correlation between a lot of these students’ lack of exposure to real hardship and their restrictive attitudes towards those of different backgrounds.

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In terms of tackling this class-based discrimination, 34.7% said that the University do not do enough to solve this problem, with a further 40.9% of respondents saying they do enough ‘somewhat’, with scope for more to be done. The same question was asked about the Student’s Union, with 37% arguing that SUSU do not do enough to tackle class-based discrimination, with 40.9% again taking a middling approach to the question.

Further to this, 33.7% of respondents said that they believed that there are class divisions in regards to opportunities at the University, whilst a further 35% said that they believed in such divisions ‘somewhat’.

Adding to this feeling of a lack of accessibility in opportunities at the University (albeit to varying extents) is the widespread feeling that the University does not do enough to help students who live in poverty, with 40.9% agreeing with this statement completely whilst a further 42.2% agreeing with this statement ‘somewhat’, which suggests that nonetheless, there is definitely still work to be done.

With 66.7% saying their financial situation had zero impact on their academic performance/grades, one could argue that this is further evidence of Southampton students generally being more financially fortunate in comparison to the general population. However, a lot of those surveyed nonetheless expressed a desire to close the gap between working class students and higher education, with 42.9% of those surveyed stating that they were in support of affirmative action within the context of class.

In response to the final question, which asked students on a scale of 1-10 whether they believed that their socioeconomic status had prevented them from achieving their potential.

The three most popular options for respondents were 1-3, with the most popular, at 25.4%, being 1. This then cements the growing idea throughout this investigation that, according to our sample, the vast majority of Southampton students cannot be defined as working class or as having any significant financial hardship.

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Combined with data supporting the idea that there are flaws in the Student Finance system and a significant desire for the University and Student’s Union to give more support to students in financial difficulty, it is clear that for Southampton, at least, a lot more needs to be done to make the student body more diverse and inclusive. For the University, the task is simple: they need to work harder to reach students from more fiscally diverse backgrounds.

You can read the original investigation, which includes corresponding graphs, in our magazine published on Issuu here


This article was written by somebody who is no longer active with Wessex Scene. If you wrote an article which is now associated with the archive account but would like your name credited, please contact us!

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