What can be done about the increasing cost burden of university education on families?

costRecent BBC media reports have highlighted the increasing concern families are experiencing over the rent and living costs attached to student university education. Government grants and loans for these costs cover barely a third of the estimated £12,000 students require annually when studying away from home, which means that the remaining burden tends to fall on families. Even for many middle earners, the additional £160 per week needed to fund student living is creating financial pressures that many parents are finding difficult to cope with. The question that this raises is what can be done to address this issue?

The causal factors

Halls of residenceIn his report for the BBC, Sean Coughlan suggested a number of issues that were causing this problem. Among these have been included the growing culture in favour of studying away from home and the fact that universities see increases in student rents at the halls of residence as a means of improving revenues and counteracting the limitations of the tuition fee cap. Equally, due to a relatively capitive target market, it is likely that private landlords are also seizing the opportunity to increase their return on investment.

However, it could also be argued that the UK government and educational organisations are exacerbating the student ‘living cost’ burden. As mentioned in a previous post on this blog, there is an increasing emphasis by managers to gain a higher position for their organisation in the ‘University League Tables‘, and they are using this process as a means of encouraging increased student numbers. Of itself, this focus serves to fuel the culture of students studying away from home.

Resolving the issues

How can this issue be resolved? The BBC report suggested there was a need for the government to review the student finance and support system. While this may prove part of the resolution, one has to question whether the current levels of student living costs grants and loans should be significantly increased. Is it fair to increase the tax burden on members of the community who do not have children at university or to divert treasury funds away from other important economic projects? Surely it is better to stop the current focus on university league tables and instead place more emphasis on ensuring that, irrespective  of location or standing, every university provides the same standard of teaching and learning outcome. It should make no difference to the graduation outcome whether the student completed their studies in Oxford or Leicester. It is important for policy-makers to recognise that, aside from the cost implications, there are other benefits to be gained by encouraging students to study closer to home. In addition to enhancing family units it can contribute to improved economic growth and social cohesion in the local community.

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