Is universal allowance for autonomy a good way to combat student poverty?

September 20, 2022

UNEF, as it has been for several years, on the occasion of the beginning of the new academic year, returns to the table a proposal for a universal allowance for autonomy for students. What do you think about this proposal?

The students suffered a lot from the consequences of the health crisis, psychologically from the interruption of face-to-face courses that accompanied it for several months and from the resulting risks of isolation, but also materially from the loss of jobs (in catering, breastfeeding – sitting, etc.), which enabled some of them to supplement their income. Survey Student Life Observatory on more than 6000 students[1] during the period of imprisonment shows that 36% of them had to stop paid work during this period with an average loss of income of €274 per month. This episode undoubtedly weakened the students and increased the risk of insecurity for some of them. The OVE survey shows that a third of students reported experiencing financial difficulties during this period and that half of them (17% of the total) considered them more serious than usual.

Even though the health situation has changed, the government has provided emergency aid valid from the beginning of the new school year (4% revaluation of scholarships based on social criteria, extraordinary aid of €100 for scholarship holders or APL holders, extension of meals to €1 for precarious students), measures , which UNEF considers notoriously insufficient. The general allowance for autonomy is in any case a structural measure whose relevance must be assessed outside the context of short-term difficulties. The contribution recommended by UNEF would represent an amount corresponding to the poverty line, i.e. 1,100 euros per month. First of all, it should be noted that this amount is exactly the same as the average income of non-resident students (those who left their parents) according to the OVE survey from 2020 on a sample of 60,000 students. Of course, a large part of this income (41%) comes from direct or indirect help to the family (e.g. through paying rent), which is specifically mentioned in the survey. It is this point that UNEF questions, considering that this family support keeps students in a minority position and dependent on their parents (interview with Imane Ouelhadj, new president of UNEF in France – information).

However, this dependence is relatively relative, as many students are not prevented from living in housing other than that of their parents, mainly thanks to housing assistance and income from activities, which can be a supplement for some people. Overall, according to the OVE survey from 2020, 67% of students live in accommodation other than their parents’.[2] and 59% receive housing assistance. The peculiarity of the French model is to combine family assistance and public assistance to support students towards autonomy. In Northern Europe, of course, there are also other models based on early financial autonomy of students through universal aid. However, their application to the French case seems difficult due to their high costs and in the current budgetary context. In addition, it is not certain whether students whose parents help them perceive this help as subordination and deprivation of freedom. In France today, intergenerational relations within families are quite good, and most parents do not see the help they bring their children as a painful limitation, but rather as an unrequited moral obligation. Parents are primarily interested in the success of their children, who they consider an extension of their own lives, and they care for their well-being, of course, to the extent of their abilities.

It should be added that funding students instead of parents, who currently do so, is partly a subsidy to well-off households. Students from upper management and middle-class families are largely dominant in the student population: 57% come from parents who are upper management, mid-level professionals or self-employed, compared to 31% from working-class families, blue-collar workers or employees (more as 2% of farmers and 10% of ill-defined professions). Logically, executive families help their students much more than working-class families: the ratio of average amounts varies from single to double, €507 average monthly family aid for executive parents versus €252 for working parents.

Wouldn’t it be fairer and more equitable to concentrate aid to benefit the most precarious students than to distribute very large sums across the board to all students? Because indeed a minority of students live in very difficult conditions. In the upcoming study carried out on the basis of data from the OVE 2020 survey, I managed to evaluate the share of students affected by real poverty at 11%, i.e. the share of those who do not have the means necessary to lead a decent life.[3]. In France, the term relative poverty is used instead, which is an assessment of the proportion of the population at the bottom of the income distribution (generally below 60% of the median income). However, this concept, which is more a concept of inequality than of poverty per se, is not suitable for measuring student poverty because students who are not fully employed by definition are necessarily at the bottom of the income distribution. Therefore, using this concept does not tell us much about them (apart from the fact that students have lower incomes than workers, which is obvious).

Who are poor students?

In the cited article, I try to apply the concept of “absolute poverty” to the student case. These are 1) evaluation of the minimum budget (based on a number of assumptions) necessary for leading a decent life (housing, food, travel, communication, entertainment) and 2) evaluation from the OVE survey data of the proportion of students who have an income lower than this living minimum[4]. The result of these calculations is an estimate of the absolute rate of student poverty at about 11%, which is not insignificant, although this result also shows that student poverty is far from generalized.

Among these poor students, two categories are strongly overrepresented: foreign students (poverty rate 19%) and students in preparatory classes at Grandes Ecoles and technical school students (17 to 18%). The situation of the former can easily be explained by the modest amount of help they received from their parents and the fact that only a very small part of them use the grant. The situation of the latter is more paradoxical, as they tend to come from well-off backgrounds: 42% have parents in higher positions compared to 27% of all students. But the income of these students is meager because they do not work because of the rigors of their schedules. They also receive parental support, which is probably not fully included in the financial support of the family they declare (they return to their parents more often on weekends than other students and also declare that they use benefits in kind from their parents more often). This case is interesting because it illustrates the ambiguity that can cover the concept of student poverty, already underlined by Nicolas Herpin and Daniel Verger in an old but still relevant article.[5]. According to them, students are people who accept low incomes for a certain period of time in anticipation of higher future incomes, while education is an investment in human capital. CPGE students are particularly symptomatic of this situation. However, this case is specific and quite different from other students living in poverty. If we exclude from the calculation these two somewhat atypical cases – international students and students from CPGE or engineering schools – to consider mainly universities and STS students, we arrive at 8% of poor students. In the second case, it is a combination of several factors that lead to these situations of poverty: leaving parents early without receiving significant help from them and without benefiting from public assistance, whether in the form of housing assistance or scholarships. We can read a positive aspect in these results: scholarships are a very clear protective factor against poverty. On the other hand, the fact that with the same type of study and lifestyle, non-grant recipients are systematically poorer than grant recipients, shows that the grant system only imperfectly fulfills its function. It does a good job of protecting those who benefit, but it leaves out some students who have major budget difficulties. 72% of poor students do not receive grants.

To compensate for family failures

Therefore, one of the axes of student aid reform should be a better understanding of the profile of these poor students who have left their families, who pass under the radar of public assistance and receive little help from their parents. One of the results of the study is that the poverty of these homeless students is not statistically associated with the social background of the parents, which undoubtedly explains why a large number of them do not qualify for scholarships according to social criteria. At the same time, deprived of scholarships, their parents help them very little (for reasons that the study does not allow to fully clarify).

Precisely on this point, we can agree with one of the arguments of the UNEF president: by allocating grants based on parents’ income, we exclude from their benefits students whose families are not eligible and who are personally in a situation of poverty. This is essentially a case where the French system of balancing family aid and public aid is broken. In theory, the grant system is not designed to compensate for deficiencies in the assistance that parents are obliged to provide to their children when their income allows it, “unless the children are able to provide for their own needs” (Articles 203 par. and 371-2 of the Civil Code ). Nevertheless, these cases clearly exist and it would be necessary to know how to react to them. Public authorities should try to identify these situations of family failure and find a way to correct them. It would be a more realistic, credible and ultimately fairer measure than a general allowance for autonomy.

[1] OVE information, 42, September 2020, “Student life in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic: uncertainties, transformations and weaknesses”

[2] RES, milestones 2020

[3] “Who are the real poor students? It will be published in the forthcoming OVE publication on the results of the “Living Conditions 2020” survey.

[4] In practice, it consisted in calculating the minimum costs and income for 24 standard situations by combining the place of residence (Ile-de-France vs. other regions), field of study, whether or not he lives with his parents and whether or not you don’t have a scholarship.

[5] Herpin Nicolas and Verger Daniel (1998), “Students, other young people, their families and poverty”, Economics and statistics number 308-310, October 1998. p. 211-227.

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