Catherine Thomas still cannot quite believe she managed to get a 2:1. A single mother with multiple sclerosis, on an income of pounds 4,820, she recalls, "I've applied for access loans and grants through the union welfare office, and I had to list all my expenses. There was no room in that for cotton buds for Grace, or for Tampax. Consequently, I'm massively in debt. I have to think of it as just paper, otherwise I'd throw myself from a bridge." Her debts, including those incurred before university when she bought a house, amount to almost pounds 40,000.

Catherine, 31, began a degree in broadcasting and law at Leeds University four years ago, and had Grace, now aged two, in the summer of her second year. "I hoped I would finish my exams, but I went into labour on the first exam day. I ended up coming back in the September to do my resits."

After a year out of college, she returned to carry on with her course, paying pounds 80 a week to the university in nursery fees, and pounds 30 in rent. "We had barely pounds 15 a week to live on - and that was thanks to a student loan and bank overdraft. If you're a student on your own, at least you know it's only you who won't eat, not your child. It has been a murderous year, trying to feed Grace properly and to scout around jumble sales to clothe her. It's so hard accounting for every penny."

Last Christmas Catherine was in despair, attempting to cope with spiralling debt, a sick child and a demanding course. "The money had completely run out and I was at the end of my tether. Our gas oven was condemned as unsafe so we had to move out of the flat, then Grace got chicken pox in the middle of it all. I went to the doctor with depression and stress, and he sent me for counselling."

She quietly mentions her MS as if this were the least of her worries. The stress caused by the financial situation has brought on severe fatigue attacks throughout the year.

If she had been on her own, she says, she would have worked during the holidays. As it is, as a student she was not eligible for income support. From next year mature student grants will be abolished and she fears the situation will be even more dire for people like her.

By September, she is supposed to pay off debts to the university of several hundred pounds. "I'll have to rely on my family to baby-sit while I go and look for work." She is due to move to north London where she hopes to enrol on a two-year part-time law course with pounds 2,000-a-year fees. "It's the only way I can see to get us out of this mess, if I can get a decent job. Otherwise, I'll be caught in the income-support-and-housing-benefit trap for the next few years."