Rebecca and Tom are among a number of real-life university students and graduates across Wales sharing their story to show people who are thinking of going to university that money shouldn’t be a barrier.
They are backing a new campaign to raise awareness of the Welsh Government’s new university finance package which affords students more opportunity to focus on their studies and spend less time worrying about making ends meet.
Rebecca Smith, 35, and Tom Smith, 30, who live in Penyffordd, Chester – on the Welsh side of the border – are managing to combine full-time university study at Wrexham Glyndŵr University with family life, as parents to son Tyler, eight, and daughter Brook, six. Their third child is due in June.
Tom had been working as a roofer but when he hurt his back he was forced to consider a career change and the couple thought university might help. Rebecca had also been interested in going to university to pursue a career in accountancy but was prepared to put this on hold and be the breadwinner while Tom studied.
But when the couple attended an open day at Wrexham Glyndŵr University to discuss Tom’s options, a chat with the university’s money team led to the revelation that both of them attending university at the same time was financially possible.
Rebecca says: “Neither of us had been to university before. Tom left school when he was 16. I stayed on after GCSEs, did a Health and Social Care GNVQ and left at 18. But prior to roofing, Tom had been an Assistant Manager for Little Chef and had completed a level 3 NVQ qualification.
“A friend of my mum’s who worked at Wrexham Glyndŵr University said a level 3 NVQ could get you accepted at university so that got us thinking.
“We went to a university open day and spoke to student finance about Tom’s options. I said I’d always wanted to go to university too but with the children I didn’t think I could afford to go at same time as Tom.
“I had been running my own cleaning business but I thought if Tom goes to university I’m going to need to get a nine-to-five, full-time job for the income and the job stability as I thought I’d be the sole breadwinner. Then I’d study when he’d graduated. But the university worked out we would be better off financially if we studied at the same time.”
The Smiths are now in the second year of their degrees – Tom in Construction Management and Rebecca in Accounting and Finance.
They are both studying full-time but this works out at three days a week for each of them. This allows Tom to work two days alongside his studies which helps the family’s finances but also aids his career development.
Rebecca says: “Tom’s been able to stay at the firm where he was a roofer. His boss gave him a managerial role in the company so he can get experience in the role while he’s studying.
“When Tom graduates, his boss plans on giving him a full-time management role, so it’s been a great incentive for Tom knowing there’s a promotion for him when he graduates. His boss has been really supportive.”
After graduating, Rebecca plans to do a Master’s degree at the university to get her chartered accountant qualification.
With student loans, plus the childcare grant which offers extra financial help to students with dependent children, and Tom’s income, the Smiths are proof that money shouldn’t be a barrier to university.
Rebecca says: “People say ‘oh, you’re in so much debt afterwards’ but it’s not as if you have to pay back half your annual salary – you pay it back a bit at a time depending on your salary. It’s not such a big cost over the lifetime of your career. I mean, I’ve got at least 30 years of work left in me.”
The new financial support for students from Wales was designed following recommendations of a higher education funding review led by Professor Ian Diamond. The review highlighted concerns that living costs were the main barrier for those making the choice about whether to go to university.
The new student finance package offers support for living costs equivalent to the National Living Wage (£7.50 per hour), made up of a mixture of grants and loans.
The new student finance package:
Will see students from average income households (£25,000) receive around £7,000 a year in a grant they won’t need to pay back.
Students from homes with lower household income will receive the highest grant – up to £10,124 a year in London and £8,100 a year in the rest of the UK. It is likely that a third of full-time students will be eligible for the full grant.
This new student finance package is available to all eligible first time undergraduates who are starting a part or full-time course from September 2018. All students from Wales can apply, no matter where they plan to study in the UK.
Rebecca says: “I would say to other people thinking they can’t afford to go to university – don’t assume. I made that assumption myself really, that I wouldn’t be able to afford university at the same time as Tom, but when we checked it out we realised that wasn’t the case. So really look into it and ask questions.
“Going to university is our investment in our careers and it’s changed our lives already – you feel more confident in yourself and it’s going to give our family a better future.
“When we told our families we were both going to university they did say ‘can you afford it?’ But when I said yes and that we’d looked into it, they were behind us. Now we’ve inspired my mum and brother-in-law to go to university as well.”
Wales’s Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams said: “Money is clearly a very important factor when deciding when to go to university, and for those who are already studying, money is found to be a major cause for stress.
“With this in mind, we have designed a new package of support to alleviate these concerns that both parents and students share. This will allow students to focus on their studies without having to worry about how they are going to afford their day to day living costs.
“The support that Welsh students, studying anywhere in the UK, can apply for is now equivalent to the National Living Wage. In addition, most students will have no upfront costs to pay as a tuition fee loan can be taken out to cover their course.
“It is important to remember that student loans are only repayable when borrowers’ earns more than £25,000 per year. Repayments can start from as little as £30 a month.
“Living costs must not be a barrier to going to university. I want everyone who has the talent, potential and ambition to have that opportunity. Whether it’s studying full-time or combining it with your career and studying part-time, university should be an option for everyone, , no matter what your background or income.”
For more information, visit www.gov.wales/studentmoney.