Learning the hard way: Maria Scott talks to a mature student struggling to make ends meet

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The Independent Online
MANY unemployed people are improving their chances in the job market by taking full-time courses at university. They quickly discover that it is not a soft financial option.

Anthony Griffiths, a 39-year-old former estate agency sales manager, is typical of the new breed of mature student.

He lost his job early in the recession when his employer went out of business. He received no redundancy payment and was unemployed for 18 months before starting a full-time two-year course in business information technology at Thames Valley University. The course should equip him to advise companies on computer and information systems.

Mr Griffiths enjoys his course but finds it difficult to make ends meet. He is living on student grants of pounds 3,245, plus a student loan and his modest savings. His pounds 30,000 mortgage costs pounds 2,280 a year alone.

'I inquired about government-sponsored courses but there was nothing they would actually pay for,' he says. 'The course I wanted to do was not a government-sponsored one. I get by, but only just.

'I do odd jobs, like gardening, to get extra money. I will look for a vacation job to get work experience but firms are not keen to take on people without experience.'

Mr Griffiths points out that if he had received a student grant in the past he might not have been eligible for one now. So life could be even tougher.

But he finds it ironic that if he had remained unemployed he would probably have run his savings down to a level - pounds 8,000 - where he would qualify for Department of Social Security assistance to pay the interest on his mortgage.

Another benefit of signing on as unemployed is that he would receive credits for the National Insurance contributions he is missing while he is out of the workforce.

Mr Griffiths cannot afford to make the Class 3 voluntary contributions appropriate for someone in his position. At present they cost pounds 283.40 a year, and unless he can make up for the lost contributions after he returns to work he could find that he retires on a reduced state pension.

'I am bailing the state out by going back to education,' he says. 'I have come off the unemployment register, so I am not a statistic any more.'

A spokeswoman for the National Union of Students says: 'Life can be more of a struggle for mature students. Often they start off with debts and they will usually have more financial commitments than young students. They may not get any help from parents.'

Liza Gilbert, student financial adviser at Thames Valley University, says: 'Grants do not take any account of mortgage costs. It is also galling for mature students who have paid National Insurance but cannot get unemployment benefit during the holidays.

'Mature students will also have a spouse's income taken into account when their grant is assessed. We receive a lot of calls from people who want to become mature students. I am sure many of them do not come to the university when they find out how little they would have to live on.'

Another option for mature students is to continue working and study part-time. But Brian Harwood, registrar at Birkbeck College in London, which specialises in part-time degree courses and attracts mainly mature students, says there is only limited assistance available with fees.

'Virtually all of them have to meet their own fees except where an employer might be paying,' he explains. 'Self-financing students have to consider their fees, travel, books and materials, all of which must be paid out of post-tax income.

'They may have to eat out more and pay babysitters. They may have to pay someone else to paint windows at home and repair roofs, and so it goes on. Tax relief on fees would be an enormous help.'

(Photograph omitted)

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