Recent claims that the Student Loans Company (SLC) has been spying on the social media accounts of vulnerable students come as no surprise to those knowledgeable about the institutionalised hardship experienced by students from unsupportive family backgrounds. According to The Guardian, 150 randomly selected students who were recognised as estranged by the SLC were asked to provide evidence that they were no longer in touch with their families. Students failing to reply within 28 days with the evidence requested had their student loans cut off.
This seems overwhelmingly cruel for a myriad of reasons. Consider, for example, the time pressures students are under. Many of us have to balance academic work, part-time work, extracurriculars, and a social life, meaning there is little time for the administrative burden of state bureaucracy. Add the threat of having what might be your only form of subsistence revoked to the daily struggle of maintaining a healthy work-life balance and meeting your deadlines, and you’ve got a recipe for a mental health crisis – one that universities are all too ill-equipped to deal with.
While the SLC’s actions would have been unacceptable if they targeted your average student, they are especially despicable when you consider the population affected – a population that is incredibly vulnerable. Estranged students have often been emotionally, physically, or sexually abused by their families of origin. Mental health difficulties are – quite unsurprisingly – common. Because estranged students can’t ‘go home’ during breaks, they experience social isolation and financial difficulties. Ultimately, 14% drop out of university because of difficulties with mental health and financing their studies. The number of students formally recognised as ‘irreconcilably estranged’ is small – the 2014-15 figure was 9,338 – which only makes the SLC’s actions seem more inexcusably misguided. Why risk causing such harm when the problem is likely to be so minor?
While the SLC’s actions would have been unacceptable if they targeted your average student, they are especially despicable when you consider the population affected
Unfortunately, I am unsurprised that the SLC pursued such a seemingly trivial issue, having seen how hostile the state can be towards people with unsupportive parents. In the social circles I operate in, complex relationships with family are the norm: as a member of the LGBT community, I am acutely aware that family is not a beacon of support and love for all young people. For some LGBT youth who are rejected by family, cutting off contact with parents is a necessary act of self-preservation. Others are kicked out by unaccepting families, often resorting to sofa-surfing to avoid being on the streets.
Thanks to a policy put forward by David Cameron’s government, under-22s are currently ineligible for the housing element of Universal Credit by default, with exceptions made for certain vulnerable groups. While this should include those made to leave their parental home, it is up to the DWP to make a judgement about whether it is ‘inappropriate’ for a young person to live their parents. The onus is thus placed upon the young person to prove that their circumstances warrant an exemption by supplying ‘evidence’ – a burden no homeless person should have to deal with.
I am also not surprised by the news because of the strong similarities the SLC’s actions bear to the broader incoherence of the government’s anti-fraud agenda. Although the hounding of benefit claimants is nothing new, the launch of austerity elevated it to new levels. Recent years have seen a seemingly endless array of programmes about ‘benefit scroungers’ – work-shy benefit claimants who manipulate the British welfare system, for example by feigning disability – deluge the nation’s TV screens. While there were claims last year that austerity has ended, welfare spending continues to be cut, and the quick perusal of a TV guide shows that the ideological heart of austerity is still beating.
As a member of the LGBT community, I am acutely aware that family is not a beacon of support and love for all young people
Tax fraud is, in fact, a far bigger issue than benefit fraud, yet there is a widespread belief that the latter is an enormous problem. All benefits recipients are treated as potential criminals, the surveillance and repeated demands for ‘evidence’ they experience bearing a great psychological toll on them and their families. And for what? Of course benefit fraud exists, but it accounts for only 1.2% of benefit expenditure, according to the DWP’s own statistics. The reason this isn’t more common knowledge is simple: it doesn’t serve the interests of people in power.
There will always be individuals who try to play any kind of system that offers financial reward. But the majority of people claiming estranged student status do so because they are indeed estranged, and are required to submit evidence in order to receive recognition of their estrangement in the first place. If the SLC is to investigate the prevalence of fraudulent student loan claims, it must do so in a far more considered and compassionate manner, rather than endangering students without the safety net of a ‘home’ to go to with hasty judgements based upon Facebook posts, which can all too easily be taken out of context.
However, it’s well worth asking why fraudulent claims of estrangement were ever a matter of significant concern. While MPs get away with tax evasion and squandering expenses, vulnerable people are pushed into destitution because of a supposed commitment to fairness. This is not fairness – it is cruelty.