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Scum of the Earth Maybe – but Educated Scum Nevertheless!

He refused me an overdraft with astonishing relish stating: “I don’t see why we should pay to educate scum like you”. I refused to stoop to begging for the right to continue my education and I walked away.

The long awaited report of the National Union of Students (NUS) ‘Poverty Commission’ [1] emerged on Monday and reports across the media of its contents raised some eyebrows. Perhaps for the first time, exposed to the light of day, we see the profound absurdity of government ‘schemes’ that are supposed to improve access to higher and further education.

The paradox of expecting students from low income backgrounds to succeed, without enough resources to live on, is set against the fallacy of a ‘middle class’ assumption that families will support their offspring ‘come what may’. This is exposed in a comprehensive and detailed report. A fully detailed coverage of it here would never do it justice; it has to be read by all concerned with the futures of our young people. The analytical and discursive style catalogues the times that we live in and the considerable work still to be done.

The foreword by Shakira Martin as NUS President is as poignant as it is lucid. She has climbed from a disadvantaged background to her current influential position. She brilliantly conflates the arguments surrounding funding and the entrenched attitudes to judging people’s backgrounds with: “And it’s not just money: poverty and class are linked ….. the system creates a poverty premium that means those who don’t have money to begin with end up paying more…..All too often, the assumptions made about apprentices, learners and students stem from the middle class perspective of the people who run our institutions”.
The stark evidence in the report is balanced by no fewer than 40 (yes forty!) recommendations to government, the university and college providers and the student unions. The comprehensive list of what is needed to ensure equality of access to post-18 education reveals how opportunity has been degraded over a considerable time.

It is no longer enough to patch up a few potholes in the road to success; it requires a new road with increased capacity that is fit for the 21st century.

Student debt and funding worries.

In this respect, the report brings together what is essentially a simple logic with the realities of trying to survive in a tough environment. In a nutshell, the funding available for day-to-day living through maintenance loans (available only in England) or a mixture of means-tested grants and loans (in the rest of the UK and set various levels of challenge to the student) is not sufficient to survive on. The net deficit for students from England is £8,710 per annum outside London and £10,531 per annum inside London. To illustrate this, the cost of renting student accommodation is rising fast and an annual mean cost of £9,215 in London, and £5,981 elsewhere, is balanced by maximum loans in England of only £7,507 in London and £5,428 elsewhere. The situation is better in Wales but, despite some grants being available, it is somewhat worse in Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, at least there are either no fees or much lower fees in those respective jurisdictions.

Depending upon the means of a student and their family, there are a limited number of solutions to the deficit. Those that are better off rely on their family making up the deficit. Some families invest in buying student flats and then cash in by selling the asset later at a profit. This all forms part of the ‘Safety Net’ noted below. I know of some that have risked releasing some of their precious ‘Safety Net’ equity in their own home property to help pay. The rest, with little or no family help likely to emerge, seek part-time employment coupled with expensive overdrafts that banks seem willing to promote. For those students, there is a careful balancing act of accepting time lost to studies versus earnings needed. This is a compromise that inevitably propels them into social isolation from their better off peers and sub-standard, cheap accommodation. When I was advising such students over the many years, I often could identify them by the distinctive smell of damp; sometimes coming from the paper that their written assignments were on. It was a familiar smell wafting through time from my past experience.

The other ‘deficit bridging’ strategy is short- term and involves using overdraft facilities or worse, credit card debt. A very recent survey by Equifax [2] revealed that almost 20% of students exceeded an agreed overdraft limit without the bank’s approval. This is a high risk strategy that inflates the debt burden in an alarming way. In the past this would not have been an option as noted from my experience below

Have things changed? A personal experience from the past.

Attitudes may have not changed and are deeply imbedded in our society.

I graduated with a degree in science in 1977 after four years of study. My experience at the hands of the high street bank on campus at that time might be worthy of some note now; even if it did spare me any debt.

I was able to supplement my income throughout without a term-time job. My third year was spent in a work experience placement that was paid at the same level as the full-time research assistants alongside me. Whilst studying, I incurred no debt burden but accepted that the higher taxation regime at that time would lead me to pay more as I hopefully progressed. I felt confident enough to embark upon a PhD position at what is now a Russell Group University; again this was fully funded. There was no other ‘self-funding’ option, as there is now, for me to consider. I had to compete for a position. I had worked part-time from the age of 14 in various jobs to help support myself. Although my parents were in employment, it was low paid and since they owned their own small terraced house through a mortgage, they had little to spare.

The year before I left home my father worked six and sometimes seven days per week on shifts in a foundry to help his car-engine maker employers in Coventry fulfil a major contract. This one year PAYE assessed grant ‘trap’ led to my maintenance grant being cut to around 50%. I had to make up the deficit myself and worked through it with savings and careful planning. All went well, but was helped by quite atrocious and cheap digs near London.

Then disaster struck.

Just after the start of the last term in my first year I received a letter from Coventry Education Committee telling me my grant had been miscalculated and I now owed them £5.40p. As a concession they were not going to pursue me for it. Today I am putting £5.40p in cash into an envelope to finally return the so called ‘concession’ to them.

Back then, it was a Monday and I had paid for my ‘room only’ digs for the whole term the week before. I was left that week with no money to buy food. The solution was not a part-time job. My degree demanded 30 hours per week contact time in lectures, practical classes and tutorials and I devoted around another 20-25 hours per week studying. I was doing very well academically.

I resorted to the high street bank on campus for a short-term overdraft facility. The manager agreed to meet me that day. He then robustly refused an overdraft with some astonishing relish stating: “I don’t see why we should pay to educate scum like you”.

He did not know me, where I came from, what I was thinking or the mission I was on. I had proof of a very well paid industrial summer job coming up, yet I was still labelled ‘scum’. But unlike him, I was educated, streetwise beyond his comprehension and on a mission to go much further. I refused to stoop to begging for the right to continue my education and I walked away bearing a profound anger that is still with me today. As a result, I was penniless and had no money to buy food for the next five days. I was in deep trouble with my career on the line because of an administrative error.

Arthur Koestler in his autobiographical recollection, entitled ‘The Scum of the Earth’ about being a refugee in detention during World War 2, aptly described how I felt then: “There was a dense fog in my brain, impenetrable to any coherent thought, except the dull obsession of counting the minutes - an aching state of semi-consciousness and numb idiocy.”

I toughed it out and lasted the whole week with no food and only water to drink. My friends had no idea what was going on since I avoided the canteen (the smell was overpowering after two days) and I sneaked off to the library in the breaks. I wrote to my mother, using a stamp I still had, to say I was returning home that weekend. We had no phone at home. Five days later, on the Friday evening, I hitched from outside London to Coventry via a route well known to me; the A5 and A45 to avoid motorways. Arriving at home I was met with a meal that I nearly choked on in my haste to devour it. Without my father knowing, she gave me £100 in cash to see me through and I hitched back on the Sunday. It was the only cash that my family had given me since I was 14 years old. Coventry Council did not think to ask if I might be in any difficulty and there was no ‘hardship fund’ to call upon. I called them the following week to be met with a ‘so what’ attitude. I sensed that underneath this there was a ‘middle class’ assumption that family support was always going to be there.

From the NUS Poverty Commission report, it seems that this notion persists today.

The education maintenance allowance (EMA) and a 16 -19 ‘black hole’

Whilst studying for O-Levels and A-Levels, I worked part-time in various jobs. There was no support such as the EMA available. The NUS Poverty Commission Report specifically highlights this as a need. I see the period between ages 16 and 19 as an ‘educational black hole’ for lower income students and I with others lobbied to fill it with support many years ago.

The EMA was introduced fully in 2004 when the government sought to unify the various schemes in operation across the UK. To that point, support was patchy across the various councils. The scheme was devised some years before by Graham Lane, the then Chairman of the Education Committee of the Local Government Association, who describes those times in his illuminating recollections [3]. There have been many detailed studies of the impact of the EMA that are too detailed and too complex to cover in this post. In summary, there are conflicting conclusions about its effectiveness. However, there is some general agreement that it succeeded in getting many lower income students to move from the so called ‘NEET’ (Not in employment education and training) status to full-time education. This had a knock-on effect of propelling many into higher paid jobs with an overall benefit to the country in higher tax income. Together these made it an attractive option for the Treasury at the outset. Its take-up rose steadily until its abolition in 2010. This was largely on the grounds of cost that had risen steadily to over £560m per annum. Cuts meant it was replaced by a much lower cost ‘16-19 Bursary Fund’. A limited number (12,000) young people in care or on income support could bid for £1,200 per year from a £15m pot. This effectively protected their EMA. A further £165m per annum would go to a support fund administered by schools and colleges at their discretion. Allocations vary depending on the demography of the schools and it is difficult to ascertain with certainly how all of it is spent. This effectively removed the so called “dead weight” of support identified in several reports and surveys. Basically, these indicated that over 80% of EMA recipients had reported that they would have continued with post-16 education with or without the EMA support. No account was taken of the plight of individuals that make up around 20%. In England, this amounted to around 130,000 young people. The question not asked of them was how they might have compensated for this loss of income. In my case, I would have indicated that I would carry on without the EMA and taken on more hours in part-time work at the expense of my social life and my time studying. Those from lower income families are at a disadvantage throughout because of these time pressures. The 16-19 Bursary Fund has not increased in line with inflation and pressure is increasing all of the time. There are many regional variations in the support offered and it is a return to the mess that the EMA sought to abolish.

One component of the EMA was recognition that the cost of travel was important. However, many local councils no longer offer travel funds for these students. Sifting through various council web sites reveals messages such as: “We no longer offer financial help for transport for 16-19 year-olds”.

The complexity of the effectiveness of both schemes was covered in a detailed report by the Department of Education in 2015 [4]. This is a good and detailed summary of both schemes together. They concluded that: “abolishing EMA and introducing the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund had a relatively modest effect on participation and attainment in the first two years of implementation, but that this disproportionately affected low-income young people.” It seems that many students absorbed the financial loss and soldiered on.

So much for ‘Social Mobility’.

Debt aversion and the ‘Safety Net’ hypothesis.

In a detailed study of students’ attitude to debt, and its likelihood to deter them from attending university, Callender et al 2017 [5] concluded that loan debt was viewed more favourably in 2015 than in 2002. Nonetheless, a sizeable minority of students are debt averse; with lower-class students exhibiting more debt aversion than upper-class students in 2015. However, middle-class students in 2015 are generally not more debt averse than lower-class students. No explanation for this apparent anomaly is proposed. The report persists with the somewhat patronising and archaic descriptors ‘lower middle and upper class’ based upon self-declaration in the questionnaire used. However, there is one factor not discussed that distinguishes the so called ‘lower-class, middle-class and upper-class’ students. This is an increase in the capital assets accumulated by their respective families as the pyramid of social classes is scaled. This I call the ‘Safety Net’. ‘Upper-class’ students can take risks in climbing higher and aspire to more in their career as they have long-term backup assured in family assets that they will inherit. They have wider choice in their options. The so called’ lower-classes’ have little or no safety net. If they run out of money then they starve. In the long run the debt is their individual responsibility with no projected inheritance to fall back upon. The other ‘classes’ can be reassured by increasing levels of capital, often tied up in property, to inherit. They have a visible ‘safety net’. This is a simple explanation that is obvious to me. I was inherently cautious and risk averse in my career decisions with very good reason.

The last word goes to Shakira Martin.

A last thought might be from Corinthians 4: 12-13:

“We work hard with our own hands. When we are vilified, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer gently. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.”

But instead it goes to Shikira Martin:

“My hope, and my vision for the UK is that we will arrive at a day where my story is not against all odds. That no working-class person’s story is against all odds. We will no longer be the exceptions to the rule when it comes to success and fulfilment in education. We will be the rule.”

I truly hope that all of us those still alive today will live to see this as a reality and not some far off distant dream obscured by the mists of times to come.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. 


[1] National Union of students: Class dismissed: Getting in and getting on in further and higher education: The Poverty Commission Report.

[2] Equifax. 2018. Nearly 2 in 10 students have gone over their agreed overdraft limit without the lender’s approval.

[3] Graham Lane.  2013. How different Governments have weakened Local Government and Democracy.

[4] Department of Education. 2015. The 16 to 19 bursary fund: impact evaluation. Research report  June 2015.
[5] Claire Callender and Geoff Mason. 2017. Does student loan debt deter Higher Education participation? New evidence from England .LLAKES Research Paper 58.


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