Martin Lewis tells ministers to stop hiding the £1,000s parents are expected to pay to support students’ living costs

MoneySavingExpert.com (MSE), the UK’s biggest consumer website, today reveals that its founder Martin Lewis has written to ministers responsible for student finance in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland, urging them to stop hiding the university parental contributions that are built into the UK’s student finance system. 

While tuition fees get column inches, the biggest practical problem most students face is that the amount they get for living expenses is slashed based on parental income – but students and parents get no warning that this gap needs filling.

According to MSE, action is needed before the start of the new academic year in September, when hundreds of thousands of new students begin their courses and millions more return – many of whose families will have seen their financial position deteriorate as a result of the pandemic.

What is the parental contribution?

For current and prospective university students aged under 25, the value of the maintenance loan and/or grant they get to cover living costs is dictated by their household's income – for most, this is a proxy for parental income. The higher their income is, the less the student gets to cover costs. In England, where all the available support is in the form of a maintenance loan, the amount a student gets will start to reduce when total family income is just £25,000 a year, and by the time it's about £60,000 a year it can be halved. 

Logic implies that parents are expected to contribute to fill the gap – as that's the only factor that impacts the amount received. For students from England, this can add up to more than £15,000 over a standard three-year course (1).

How is the parental contribution hidden?

There is little mention of the parental contribution in official student finance documents around the UK – students get a letter telling them what their living loan (and/or grant) is, without indicating that it has been reduced, never mind by how much, due to the household income means test.

This leaves many heading off to university without knowing their loans are a fraction of the full amount. Martin has met students whose parents won't give them money as "it's about learning independence", without realising their loan's been halved on the expectation their parents would fill the gap.

For years, MSE and its founder Martin have campaigned to raise awareness of this hidden parental contribution. The UK government-commissioned Augar report on higher education, published in 2019, supported and included Martin's suggestion that the Student Loans Company begins to make the contribution explicit. It also noted that only 15% of parents give their children the expected amount or more. 

But in its interim conclusion to the review, published in January 2021, the Government did not mention the parental contribution, leading to the worry that unless more pressure is applied, little will happen – which is why Martin is calling for action today. He has written to the Minister of State for Universities, Michelle Donelan MP, along with the ministers responsible for student finance in Northern Ireland and Scotland (there is no expected parental contribution in Wales (2)).

How is the system falling short across the UK?

  • Official documentation for students in England (where all the support is via a maintenance loan) says only that, depending on their income, parents "may have to contribute" towards their children's living costs while at university, which isn't likely to be very helpful in practice. Students aren't explicitly told how and why their loan has been reduced, or how much their parents need to contribute.

In Northern Ireland and Scotland, family income dictates the total amount of support received and how much of that support is a loan versus a non-repayable grant (3). 

  • The Student Finance Northern Ireland guide "How you are paid 20/21" previously said: "The Student Loans Company (SLC) will send you a letter telling you how much support you can get and the contribution (if any) you and your family are expected to make towards your living costs." Yet despite this being exactly the right policy, the SLC confirmed it was never implemented and the guide was later amended to remove the reference to a letter being sent. 
  • Scotland’s Student Information website is clearer that parents are expected to contribute – but it doesn't give exact figures and, as in England and Northern Ireland, this information is absent from letters students receive about their loans.

What is MSE calling for?

Martin and MSE aren’t calling for a complicated or difficult change – only transparency and more explicit wording included in students' loan entitlement letters across all three nations. For example, in England, the wording could be as follows:

"Your loan for living is £x,xxx a year. The full loan for those students from the lowest income households is £x,xxx. Yours has been reduced by £x,xxx after we assessed your family's income.

"As the reduction is based on family income, family should consider contributing to help make up the shortfall."

This is crucial for students to have proper funding and in order to allow preplanning – which may be needed years in advance – and to reduce the friction between parents and students. Parents have told MSE that the parental contribution came a surprise, and some only learned about it after MSE and Martin made them aware:

"We didn't have a clue that maintenance loans were means tested.... I just assumed my son would be able to borrow what he needed. Having to top up a minimum of £6,000 a year is a bit of a shock to be honest!" – Jane, via Facebook

"I had no idea that I would need to make the shortfall, student finance consider income but not expenditure – I found out from your website. I hadn’t saved for this, so it’s been a tough 2 years and now I’ve got 2 children going to uni in Sept and have £8,000 shortfall” – Vicci, via Twitter

Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, said: "Politicians love to argue about tuition fees, conveniently ignoring by far the biggest practical problem most students face – do they have enough money to live off? Many don’t, but a prime cause is hidden. The system has an implicit parental contribution – the loan and possible grant they receive depends on their family’s income. The more families earn, the less they get. For those who analyse the system, it’s transparent that it works this way. But with the pandemic exacerbating student financial problems, it’s about time that transparency was extended to students and their parents.

"To not make this explicit and explain how it works risks immense stress on relationships between parents and their children, leaving them unable to plan financially – often over several years – with many families complaining that ironically, the living loan isn’t enough. I’ve met students living off a pittance, because their parents thought – ‘it’s time to stand on your own two feet’ – not realising the government expects them to help. Whether or not you agree with how the system works, at the very least, it needs to be honest."

How much parents need to save for a child going to university – students in England 

In England, students are given a government loan. For a student starting university in September 2021, MSE’s ready reckoners (4) show how much parents in England would be expected to top up their child’s annual living costs under the current system (5). If parents fill this financing gap, it means their child would then be in the same position as someone from a lower income background getting the full state support.

For more information, see Martin's parental contribution briefing. Parents of prospective or current students in all four UK nations can use MSE’s Student Loan Parental Contribution Calculator to see what they should save to support their child’s living costs at university.

Table 1: For students living at home with parents, the full loan award is £7,987 a year

A family with household income of…

Will get a student loan of…

Therefore the expected parental contribution is…

< £25,000

£7,987

£0

£30,000

£7,315

£672

£35,000

£6,642

£1,345

£40,000

£5,969

£2,018

£45,000

£5,296

£2,691

£50,000

£4,623

£3,364

£55,000

£3,950

£4,037

£58,220+

£3,516

£4,471

Table 2: For students living away from home studying outside London, the full loan award is £9,488 a year

A family with household income of…

Will get a student loan of…

Therefore the expected parental contribution is…

< £25,000

£9,488

£0

£30,000

£8,809

£679

£35,000

£8,130

£1,358

£40,000

£7,450

£2,038

£45,000

£6,771

£2,717

£50,000

£6,092

£3,396

£55,000

£5,412

£4,076

£60,000

£4,733

£4,755

£62,286+

£4,422

£5,066

Table 3: For students living away from home studying in London, the full loan award is £12,382 a year 

A family with household income of…

Will get a student loan of…

Therefore the expected parental contribution is…

< £25,000

£12,382

£0

£30,000

£11,692

£690

£35,000

£11,001

£1,381

£40,000

£10,311

£2,071

£45,000

£9,620

£2,762

£50,000

£8,929

£3,453

£55,000

£8,239

£4,143

£60,000

£7,548

£4,834

£65,000

£6,858

£5,524

£70,004+

£6,166

£6,216

Ready reckoners for Northern Ireland and Scotland are available on request.

-ends-

Notes to editors:

  1. For a student living away from home outside London, the maximum expected parental contribution after means-testing is £5,066 a year.
  2. In Wales, there is no parental contribution built into the system as all students get the same amount of support. The only difference family income makes is how much of the support is a loan, and how much is a non-repayable grant. 
  3. In Northern Ireland, the reduction in total loan and bursary starts with a family income of just £19,203 a year. The maximum possible total support is £8,368 a year, the minimum £3,750 a year. In Scotland, the reduction in total loan and bursary starts with family income of just £21,000 a year. The maximum total support available is £7,750 a year, the minimum £4,750 a year. Ready reckoners for Northern Ireland and Scotland are available on request.
  4. Figures shown are for full-time dependent students starting in academic year 2021/2022. They don't include any extra funds for students with dependants, disabilities or those studying for an NHS degree. The calculations also assume there are no other dependant siblings that parents may also be supporting. If so, the household residual income is counted as being slightly reduced.
  5. The expected parental contribution for a student in England starting university in 2021 is calculated by subtracting the amount of loan the student will get from the full award amount. This is done via an assessment of family residual income, and explained in full in point 9 of MSE’s Student Loan Mythbusters guide.

 

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