UK student loans: how to apply – and other options to consider

If you are heading off to university next month and have not sorted out your student loans, you need to get a move on. It’s not too late to apply, but those who do so now probably won’t get all of their money in time for the start of their course.

Here, we look at what students and parents need to think about.

Student finance is the official government funding you apply for to pay for university tuition fees and help with living costs while studying.

There are two types of loan available: the tuition fee loan, which covers the course fees, with the money paid directly to the university or college, and the maintenance loan, which is designed to help with costs such as accommodation, food and books.

Tuition fees are charged by universities and colleges to cover key elements of your course and academic life (lectures, seminars and tutorials, course admin costs, access to course-related facilities and so on) as well as core services related to students’ wellbeing, Ucas says. However, they do not usually cover things such as printing or photocopying at libraries, non-compulsory field trips, textbooks and other course materials, and membership of clubs and societies.

The maintenance loan is partly means-tested – how much a student gets depends on their household income (for most students, that’s how much their parents earn), where they are living and where they will be studying.

Student finance must be paid back once the recipient graduates and is earning above a minimum salary.

You must apply to the student finance body in the country you live in before you start university. You can do it online via gov.uk/apply-for-student-finance. This will take you to the links for the relevant bodies in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Technically you can still apply for funding up to nine months after the first day of the academic year for your course.

However, the Student Loans Company says student finance applications can take six to eight weeks to process, and has indicated that students who apply now probably won’t receive their full maintenance loan entitlement when the term starts. “We will try to get some money to them and top it up later,” a spokesman says. Typically it will award the minimum maintenance loan amount first, so the student has some money at the start of their course, followed by a top-up payment if they are eligible for more funding.

In terms of the tuition fees, that can usually be sorted out very quickly. With most universities the tuition fees are not normally charged right away anyway – the first payment date is often some time in October or November.

Each country within the UK has its own rules, so it partly depends on where you usually live. Household income and whether you will live at home or away are other major factors.

In England for 2021-22 the maximum loan for a student living at home is £7,987 and the minimum is £3,516. If you will be living away from home, outside London, the maximum and minimum are £9,488 and £4,422. If you will be living away from home in London, they are £12,382 and £6,166 respectively. Generally, you will get the maximum maintenance loan if your annual household income is below £25,000, while the minimums kick in above thresholds ranging from £58,000 to £70,000.

“Unlike the fees loan, it’s paid directly to your student bank account once a term (monthly in Scotland), and you can spend it on anything you like – which is why you need to be clever about it,” says the website Save the Student.

If your family has suffered financially because of the coronavirus pandemic, you may be eligible for a higher level of funding.

For example, in England you can apply for a “current year income assessment” if you think your household income this tax year (2021-22) will be at least 15% lower than the year you have been asked to give details about (for those heading off in the coming weeks that’s 2019-20). You will qualify for an assessment if your expected household income after the 15% decrease is between £25,000 and £58,220 a year.

It is a similar system in Wales. In Scotland, if your household income figure has dropped into a lower bracket, Student Awards Agency Scotland can look at your funding again based on the current estimate. In Northern Ireland, your total household income must have fallen by 5% or more to be reassessed.

Check with your university as there may be bursaries, grants and scholarships you can apply for. Each university or college will have its own rules about who qualifies and how much you can receive.

Bursaries are like grants and do not have to be paid back. “Bursaries typically go to students whose household income is below £25,000 a year, though some universities cut off at around £40,000 a year,” Save the Student says.

Universities and colleges typically also have hardship funds that mean you could receive extra money if you are experiencing financial difficulty.

Meanwhile, some charities, councils and businesses offer funds.

The Scholarship Hub lets people search and apply for UK scholarships, grants or bursaries for university.

Turn2us – a charity providing help to those struggling financially – runs a site that allows people to search for charitable grants.

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