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Financing your way through uni

Going to university looks like an expensive business – and without a doubt, it is. But it is affordable, if you are sensible about it.

The first thing to understand is the grants and loans available to students. The government spells these out clearly here, and provides a calculator so you can see what you will be eligible for.

In a nutshell, tuition fees (as things stand) are up to £9000 a year, depending on what you are studying. (Also, Scottish students and those from elsewhere in the EU beyond England, Wales and Northern Ireland don’t pay fees if going to university in Scotland.) This may change after the 2015 General Election.

This seems huge but it can be covered by a tuition fee loan (part-time students won’t get as much, however). In addition, you can get an annual maintenance loan (up to £8000 for a student living in London and away from home, but less if you are studying outside London and/or living with your parents.

Then there is the maintenance grant, an additional sum that you don’t have to pay back. Students whose parents’ income is less than £25,000 will get the maximum of almost £3400 a year, and the amount decreases for greater levels of household income (if it’s over £42,620, there is no grant).

For more on these core elements to paying your way through university, including special circumstances that might mean a student is eligible for more or different funding, see these websites:

Now, according to the Money Advice Service (quoting a 2012 survey by LV), the annual cost of living as a student is going to add up to around £10,000. So even if you do get a grant, it’s not going to come close to covering your costs. You are going to need those student loans. It may seem like an awful lot to borrow over the course of three years or more of studying, but as Blair Campbell, Assistant Head of Recruitment at the University of East Anglia wrote recently for UniBox, this is cheap (and potentially free) money and it is, mathematically speaking, far better to take student loans than to spend your family’s savings.

Living on the cheap

Student life doesn’t have to mean “no life”. It should be completely the opposite. It just demands a bit of restraint, good sense and sometimes some imagination to keep the bills and outgoings down and under control.

The Money Saving Expert website has plenty of good advice on how to do this. Students should also take a look at the UCAS advice on managing money and the Money Advice Service pages on budgeting. The advice pages and forums at the Student Room are always worth a browse.

Those websites will steer students in the right direction and help them stay within their budget. Newspaper websites often feature the stories of students who have found good ways to cut their costs, too.

Nobody should expect to be living like lords while at university (unless they actually are lords, in which case the Bank of Mummy and Daddy may be in a position to help). At this stage in life, it’s entirely normal to feel totally hard-up. It’s all part of the experience.

So while it’s not reasonable to expect anyone to go to uni without a decent phone, does it really have to be the top-of-the-range one with a holo projector and built-in sandwich toaster? It’s only going to get lost during Freshers’ Week, anyway. Do you need that Netflix account? Sure, those Moleskine notebooks are, like, gorgeous, but couldn’t you manage with A4 pads from Poundland? That 72-inch monitor isn’t even going to fit in your room, you know! The ex-Costa Coffee espresso-maker you bought at auction is lovely, but you won’t be able to plumb it in – try a kettle.

And no, frankly, you don’t need a car. (There’s probably a car club near your uni anyway.)

Other sources of income

It doesn’t have to be about spending less money – you could bring in more.

The National Union of Students’ website has a good section on alternative funding sources, here. These might include state benefits or contributions from your university if you’re in real financial hardship.

A great way to make life more comfortable through uni is to get a bursary or sponsorship. This usually involves making a commitment to a particular company or employer, either to spend part of your course with them as an internship, perhaps, or working for them after you graduate. The UK Armed Forces are good sources of this kind of funding – the Navy wants engineers, for instance, and the Army pays a lot to medical students who go on to serve six years on a Short Commission when they are registered as doctors.

The NHS offers bursaries too. Some charities and trusts will give grants to students, under special circumstances (for example, for gifted musicians). There will be others, and it’s worth spending time looking up anything and everything that might apply to a particular student.

Of course, you can work for it. As long as it doesn’t negatively impact your studies, a part-time job behind a bar or a shop till for a few hours a week can make a huge difference (and it’s worth looking at the advice from UCAS here). It’s great experience, too, and will stand you in good stead for when you leave uni and join the job market. It’s great if it’s relevant work, too: that bar job is doubly good if you’re studying hospitality management, and getting a couple of nights a week working in a theatre box office is brilliant if you’re a drama student. There are job agencies and websites to scour for opportunities, but don’t neglect newspaper job ads and keep an eye open for notices in shop/restaurant/bar windows.

What about your hobbies? If you’re a whizzkid with the knitting needles, get those yarny creations up for sale on Etsy. All those hours spent painting Warhammer 40k figures have, believe it or not, given you a skill with real value. If you’re into photography, you could be offering your services to local estate agentsand learning not to do this.

Managing debt

Any student is probably going to find it very, very hard to keep out of debt. The important thing is to manage it sensibly and not to let it affect your future or even your health – because debt can be a huge worry and a source of tremendous stress if it gets out of control.

If your debt becomes a worry, your uni will have advisers, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau is there for you (online if you’d prefer), and your bank will always, always want to talk to you about it sooner rather than later, so the problem doesn’t get any worse than it has to be.

That’s the key: no matter how terrible the debt situation may seem, face up to it quickly and start – straight away – taking the steps you need to bring it under control.

Avoid “pay-day” type, short-term loans at all costs. It may seem like a good idea at the time, or you may feel desperate enough, but a pay-day loan will be a millstone throughout your studies and beyond. It will only make matters much worse. Pay-day loans are mind-bogglingly expensive ways of getting money (to quote Money Saving Expert, they “charge more for a month than credit cards do for a year“).

Credit cards can be useful – especially because they usually come with some kind of insurance or protection for purchases made with them, especially online. But make sure you get one that is specifically for students, with a sensible limit and terms. Pay it off in full every month, don’t use it to withdraw cash, and it won’t be a problem.
The Money Saving Expert student guide has plenty more ways to stretch that student loan, from getting council tax discounts to choosing bank accounts and shopping around for cheap utilities.

If you have any other suggestions, please leave us comments below!

UPDATE: Lifehacker is always a good source of inspiration and money-saving ideas, with a bit of added geeky fun.

UPDATE #2: If you’re doing maths or physics, then this announcement (11 March, 2015) is for you. There’s a plan to give £15,000 bursaries for graduates in those subjects who want to become teachers.

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Tue, 31 Jan 2017

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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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