MORE THAN half of all further education students suffer financial hardship and over a quarter are in debt, according to unpublished research revealed by The TES.
Students struggle to make the financial sacrifices to get to college, but just under a quarter - 23 per cent - consider dropping out for financial reasons.
The Government pledge of pound;725 million for FE includes pound;183m for student support. Educational maintenance allowances of up to pound;40 a week will be piloted for disadvantaged students. But the research underlines the urgent need for a more radical shake-up of student support.
The research into student income and expenditure by Professor Claire Callender of the Social Science Research Centre at the South Bank University was jointly commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment and the Further Education Funding Council.
"Financial hardship and debt are the bedrock of poverty and social exclusion and students in further education are very familiar with both," she said. The most vulnerable were full-time students over 19; students from lower social classes; lone parents and couples with children.
At least three-quarters in each group had no savings and a third were in debt. Older students managed by cutting back on essentials and using credit. Students made different personal sacrifices to pursue their studies "yet nearly a quarter of older students were unconvinced about the rates of return on their education. They did not think they would benefit financially from going to college in the longer term", she said.
One in three said financial hardship had affected their academic performance and future plans. Among those who took jobs to avoid poverty, nearly a third said their coursework had suffered as they could not devote enough time to college work. A sizeable minority said hardship was forcing them to give up education.
Students spent on average pound;600 during the year on course-related expenditure, but this was constrained by their income, 70 per cent of all students experienced problems meeting these costs, and the proportion rose to 94 per cent among full-time students over 19, according to the research.
Travel costs were often hard to meet and this disbarred some from becoming students: nearly a fifth of students had not bought books they needed because they could not afford them.
The study found that 70 per cent of students undertook some paid work during the academic year - four out of five worked continuously throughout the year. "Their average weekly earnings from both full and part-time jobs were well below the national average, falling between the lowest decile and quartile of all pay rates."
The average student income over the 199798 academic year was pound;5,192, while their expenditure was pound;6,149. They made up the shortfall by drawing from their savings, borrowing and not paying bills.
Very few students could rely on their families to help out with the money. Their expenditure went on living costs (63 per cent); housing (23 per cent); participation costs (10 per cent); and children (4 per cent).
"Students were ill-prepared for the costs they would incur while studying. More than half had received no information about these costs before starting their course. And two in five had perceived these costs incorrectly, with a third under-estimating them."
The survey found that students' actual college-related expenditure amounted to an average of pound;598. Three-fifths of this was spent on travel, tuition fees, exam and registration fees and childcare. The rest went on books, equipment, stationery and field trips. For most students travel was the single biggest item of expenditure (pound;231). Some older students had particular problems with childcare costs. Three in five mothers with a young child paid pound;925 over the academic year for childcare and lone parents paid pound;1,031.
"Students' lack of awareness, however, should not cloud the fact that student financial support within further education is wholly inadequate," she said.
The survey's findings on the income and expenditure of students in FE are reported inside this week's FE Focus.
Research data charts, page 27