The last figures released by the Sutton Trust has shed light on the alarming financial difficulties and Maintenance Loan Crisis faced by university students in England. The research, which involved polling by Savanta, reveals that a significant majority of students are unable to meet the minimum food expenditure necessary for a healthy living.

Key findings

  • Food Expenditure Below Minimum: Approximately 62% of students spend less than £37 per week on food, which is below the minimum amount recommended by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trussell Trust for essential food items.
  • High Living Costs: Students living outside London face median annual essential costs of £11,400, including accommodation (52%), groceries (12%), and bills (6%). However, the median maintenance loan of £7,000 covers only 61% of these expenses.
  • Greater Challenges in London: In London, the situation is even more dire. Despite a higher median loan of £8,500, it falls significantly short of the median annual spending of £17,287 by students in the capital.
  • Impact on Studies: To cope with financial pressures, two-thirds of students have taken up paid work, with 20% working between 16-30 hours weekly. This has led to 49% missing classes and 23% missing deadlines or requesting extensions.
  • Class Disparities: There is a noticeable class divide in the financial capabilities of students. Those from working-class backgrounds spend about 21% less on essentials than their middle-class counterparts, with a higher proportion of their spending going towards rent and bills.


Maintenance Loan Crisis

The study reveals that a significant portion of students, about 62%, are spending less than £37 per week on food. This amount is considered the minimum required for a single person to purchase essential food items, as per the standards set by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trussell Trust. This under-spending on food is a clear indicator of the financial strain students are experiencing.

In addition to food costs, students face high living expenses, with those living outside of London incurring median annual costs of £11,400 for essentials. These costs include accommodation, which accounts for over half of their spending, groceries, and bills. However, the median total loan amount of £7,000 falls significantly short of covering these expenses, covering only about 61% of their needs.

The situation is even more challenging in London, where the median loan amount of £8,500 is inadequate against the median spending of £17,287 by students in the capital. This disparity highlights the growing gap between the cost of living and the financial support available to students.

The financial strain has also impacted students’ academic experiences. To manage their finances, two-thirds of the students have taken up paid work, with a notable portion working 16-30 hours per week. This necessity to work has led to almost half of them missing classes and a significant number missing deadlines or requesting extensions.

Moreover, the study found stark class differences in the financial capabilities of students. Students from working-class backgrounds spend approximately 21% less on essentials compared to their middle-class peers. This disparity is further exacerbated by the fact that a larger proportion of their spending is dedicated to rent and bills, leaving them with even less for groceries.

What is the Maintenance Loan Crisis?

Maintenance Loan Crisis

The Maintenance Loan Crisis in England has become a significant concern, as highlighted by the latest research from the Sutton Trust. This crisis is characterised by several key issues that are impacting university students’ ability to afford basic living expenses, particularly food.

Firstly, the value of maintenance loans in England is now at its lowest in real terms for the past seven years. This decline in value is primarily due to the failure of loan amounts to keep pace with the rising cost of living and inflation. As a result, the financial support provided to students is increasingly insufficient to cover their essential needs.

Another critical aspect of this crisis is the frozen parental earnings threshold for maximum loan eligibility. Since 2008, this threshold has remained unchanged, meaning that fewer students are now eligible for the maximum loan amounts. The threshold currently stands at a household income of under £25,000 per year. This stagnation has significantly reduced the number of households that can benefit from the maximum loan, especially considering the economic changes over the past 15 years.

Furthermore, the situation in England contrasts starkly with other regions of the UK. In Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, students are eligible for maintenance grants, which do not need to be repaid. These grants significantly alleviate the financial burden on students. For example, in Wales, the support package for students is considerably more generous, offering up to £11,720 in a combination of loans and grants.

The Sutton Trust has responded to these findings by calling for an increase in the overall maintenance levels to better reflect the true cost of living for students and address the Maintenance Loan Crisis. Additionally, there is a strong advocacy for the reintroduction of maintenance grants in England. These grants would provide vital support to students from lower-income households, enabling them to meet their basic needs without accumulating excessive debt by the time they graduate.

The Maintenance Loan Crisis in England presents a challenging scenario for university students, who are struggling to cover their basic living expenses against a backdrop of inadequate financial support and rising costs of living. The Sutton Trust’s call for action aims to address these issues and ensure a more equitable and sustainable support system for students.

Calls for action

how to help Maintenance Loan Crisis

In response to these findings, the Sutton Trust is advocating for significant changes in the maintenance loan system. The Trust is calling for an increase in the overall maintenance levels to more accurately reflect the true cost of living for students. This adjustment is crucial to ensure that students can afford their basic needs without being burdened by excessive debt upon graduation.

Additionally, there is a strong push for the reintroduction of maintenance grants in England. These grants, which do not need to be repaid, would provide essential support to students from lower-income households, enabling them to meet their basic needs more effectively.

Sir Peter Lampl, the founder of the Sutton Trust, has emphasised the urgency of these changes. He points out the unfairness in the current system, where students in England are disadvantaged compared to those in other parts of the UK, who have access to maintenance grants. Lampl highlights the necessity of tackling the Maintenance Loan Crisis by reintroducing these grants in England to ensure that all students can pursue their education without the added stress of financial insecurity.

The Chief Executive of The Russell Group, Tim Bradshaw, also commented urging the government to act:

“These figures add further weight to the case for an increase in maintenance loans, so students have enough money to live on.

“In response to the rising cost of living, universities are stepping up support for students, including investing tens of millions in additional hardship funding and other financial help, as well as a range of other measures such as providing subsidised food and extending access to campus facilities.

“However, as these findings show, the scale of the issue means additional Government support is needed. To ensure students can cover the cost of essentials and are able to focus on their studies, we urge the Government to uplift maintenance loans to reflect actual average inflation each year and reintroduce maintenance grants in England for the most disadvantaged students.” 

Find more information in our student finance guide to find out what is currently offered.