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Understanding student finance: A parent’s perspective

By Emily Robinson, on 22 May 2018

Karen, our Senior Access Officer (Pupil Engagement) tells us about how she felt when her son started university last Autumn, and gives her thoughts on supporting your child through the student finance application process and how to help them manage their money. 

It’s fair to say that sending your child off to university is a significant milestone for everyone in the family.  In most cases, this will mark the first time your child will live independently, learning how to take care of themselves and manage their own money.  For parents, the transition often brings with it a major sense of loss. Barack Obama recently described dropping his eldest daughter off at Harvard as “a little bit like open-heart surgery”.  As someone who went through the same experience last September, I can completely identify with his sentiments.  Parents of new undergraduates have many anxieties that keep them awake at night. We worry about our children eating properly, getting enough sleep, making new friends and, of course, we want them to do well in their studies.

Applying for student finance

One of the major areas of concern for both new students and their parents is finance.  For many students, money will be tight.  Your child will need to learn how to budget and minimise their living costs so that they don’t run out of money early in each term.  The process of applying for student finance can seem daunting and complicated at first.  The key thing to understand initially is that there are two main types of financial support available for students and your child will need to apply for these via Student Finance England if they plan to study in England:

  • Tuition Fee Loan – This goes directly from the Student Loans Company to your student’s university and is not dependent on income. That means that your child’s fees will be covered by their loan no matter what you earn, and you don’t have to provide any information about your income for you child to entitled to this loan.
  • Maintenance Loan – This is the amount your child will receive to cover living costs such as accommodation, food and travel. Every student applying for a loan is entitled to the basic loan amount, however your child may be entitled to more if you provide details of your income. In order to do this, you will need to dig out the relevant paperwork for the previous tax year such as your P60, Self-Assessment tax return or information on the benefits your receive. The  amount of maintenance loan your child receives will be based on on who they live with for the majority of the time, so if you are a single parent, you may need to provide evidence of this such as your divorce certificate or a council tax bill showing a 25% single adult discount.

“It is a good idea to encourage your child to apply for finance at around the same time as they submit their UCAS application to make sure that the money will be in place at the start of term.”

It is a good idea to encourage your child to apply for finance at around the same time as they submit their UCAS application to make sure that the money will be in place at the start of term.  They can do this using the details of their preferred course (this can be amended later, if necessary).

For me, the most difficult part of the process was gathering together the paperwork I needed to support my son’s application.  Once I had done this, I found it relatively straightforward to submit the information online, but if you prefer, you can fill in a form on paper and post it in to them.

Be aware that, as a parent, Student Finance England will not discuss the details of the application with you unless your child gives them permission to do so.  This may take some getting used to, but if your child is 18 or older, the Data Protection Act prevents organisations from sharing information with you.

Talk to your child about managing their money

I would recommend talking to your child about finances as early as you can.  One think to focus on is their accommodation. Talk through their options and shop around for the best deal.  It is likely that you will need to pay a deposit to secure the accommodation of your choice (we had to find over £500 the summer prior to my son starting university to cover the deposit and initial rent).  It is possible that the maintenance loan will not be enough to pay for your child’s accommodation and living costs so work out if you can afford to top up the money your child will receive from the government and if so, by how much.  If not, discuss whether or not they are willing and able to work part time.  Also, speak to the university or look on its website to see if your child might be eligible for any bursaries or scholarships; these will be open to students who meet certain academic criteria or those whose circumstances suggest they might need additional support.

All of this may sound a little overwhelming, even scary, but don’t let the idea of student debt put your child off applying to university. It is an obvious concern, but the difference in employability and earning power after graduation more than makes up for it.  Also, remember that they don’t have to start repaying until they have finished studying and are earning over a certain threshold, currently £25,000 per annum.  To help you understand how the repayment system works, check out the article we posted recently on how student loans differ from other loans.

A word from the writer:

I’m a Senior Access Officer in UCL’s Widening Participation team responsible for engaging with pupils and parents.  Prior to this, I taught in a secondary school for three years. I am currently getting used to having a much quieter house since my son started university last September.

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