Is common autonomy allowance a great way to deal with pupil poverty?

September 20, 2022

On the occasion of the beginning of the new academic year, UNEF, as it has been for several years, is returning to the table the proposal of a universal fee for student autonomy. What do you think about this proposal?

The students suffered to a great extent from the consequences of the health crisis, psychologically with the interruption of direct teaching that followed the months-long isolation and the resulting risks of isolation, but also materially with the loss of jobs (in catering, baby-sitting, etc.), which enabled some of them to supplement their income. Research by the Observatory of Student Life on more than 6,000 students[1] during the detention period shows that 36% of them had to stop their paid activity 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 research of OVE shows that a third of the students stated that during this period they encountered financial difficulties and that half (17% of the total number) consider them more serious than usual.

Even if the health situation has changed, the Government has provided emergency assistance related to the beginning of the new school year (revaluation of scholarships of 4% based on social criteria, exceptional assistance of €100 for scholarship students or holders of APL, extension of meals until 1 € for insecure students), measures that UNEF considers notoriously insufficient. In any case, the allowance for universal autonomy is a structural measure whose relevance must be assessed outside the context of short-term difficulties. The allowance recommended by UNEF would be an amount equivalent to the poverty line, i.e. €1,100 per month. First of all, it should be noted that this amount is exactly that of the average income of non-resident students (those who left their parents) according to the OVE 2020 survey on a sample of 60,000 students. Of course, a large part of this income (41%) comes from family assistance, direct or indirect (through paying rent, for example), which is specifically listed in the survey. This is precisely what UNEF disputes, considering that this family support keeps students in a minority status and dependent on their parents (interview with Imane Ouelhadj, new president of UNEF in France – information).

This dependence is, however, quite relative as it does not prevent many students from living in accommodation different from that of their parents, especially thanks to housing assistance and income from activities which can be complementary for some people. In total, according to OVE research from 2020, 67% of students live in accommodation that is different from their parents’ accommodation.[2] and 59% receive housing assistance. The specialty of the French model is that it combines family assistance and public assistance in order to support students in the direction of autonomy. Of course, there are other models, in Northern Europe, based on early financial autonomy for students through universal aid. But their application to the French case, given their high cost and in the current budgetary context, seems difficult. Moreover, it is not certain that students who are helped by their parents perceive this help as subjugation and deprivation of freedom. In France today, relations between generations in families are quite good, and most parents do not consider the help they provide to their children a painful obstacle, but an unrequited moral obligation. Parents are above all concerned about the success of their children, whom they see as an extension of their own lives, and concerned about their well-being, of course to the extent that they can.

It should be added that funding students instead of parents who currently do so is partly subsidizing well-off households. Students from upper managerial and middle-class families are quite dominant in the student population: 57% come from parents who are upper managers, middle professionals or self-employed, compared to 31% from working-class families, workers or employees (more than 2% farmers and 10% poor defined occupations). Logically, executive families help their student children much more than working families: the ratio of average amounts ranges from single to double, 507 euros of average monthly assistance for executive parents to 252 euros for working parents.

Wouldn’t it be fairer and more equitable to concentrate aid for the benefit of the most secure students, rather than spreading very large sums across all students? Because, indeed, a minority of students live in very difficult conditions. In the upcoming study conducted on the basis of data from the OVE 2020 survey, I managed to estimate the share of students affected by real poverty at 11%, that is, the share of those who do not have the resources necessary for a decent life.[3]. In France, the concept of relative poverty is used instead, which means estimating the proportion of the population at the bottom of the income distribution (generally below 60% of the median income). But this concept, which is more a concept of inequality than of poverty as such, is not suitable for measuring student poverty because students who are not, by definition, fully employed, inevitably find themselves at the bottom of the income distribution. The use of this concept therefore does not tell us much about them (apart from the fact that students have lower incomes than employees, which is obvious).

Who are poor students?

In the cited article, I try to apply the concept of “absolute poverty” to the student case. This includes 1) an estimate of the minimum budget (based on a number of assumptions) required for a decent life (housing, food, travel, communication, entertainment) and 2) an estimate based on data from this research of the proportion of students who have an income below this subsistence minimum[4]. These calculations result in an estimate of the absolute rate of student poverty at around 11%, which is not negligible, even if this result shows that student poverty is far from generalized.

Among these poor students, two categories are highly overrepresented: foreign students (poverty rate of 19%) and students in preparatory classes for Grandes Ecoles and students in technical schools (rate of 17 to 18%). The situation of the former can easily be explained by the modest amount of help they receive from their parents and the fact that only a small part of them use the grant. The situation of the latter is more paradoxical because they tend to come from well-off backgrounds: 42% have parents who are senior managers compared to 27% for all students. But the income of these students is modest because they do not work because of the heavy working hours. They also receive parental support which is probably not fully accounted for in the financial family support they report (they return to their parents more often on weekends than other students and also report that they benefit from their parents more often). This case is interesting because it illustrates the ambiguity that can cover the notion of student poverty that Nicolas Herpin and Daniel Verger have already underlined in an old but still relevant article.[5]. Students, they say, are people who accept low incomes for a while in anticipation of higher future incomes, and education is an investment in human capital. CPGE students are particularly symptomatic of this situation. However, this case is special and quite different from other students living in poverty. If we exclude from the calculation these two somewhat atypical cases – foreign students and students of CPGE or engineering schools – to take into account mainly university and STS students, we arrive at a rate of 8% of poor students. For the latter, a combination of several factors leads to these situations of poverty: the fact that parents leave early without significant help from them and without the benefit of either 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, those who are not scholarship recipients are systematically poorer than scholarship recipients, shows that the grant system only imperfectly fulfills its function. It protects those who benefit from it well, but leaves out some of the students who have great budget difficulties. 72% of poor students are not on scholarship.

Make up for family mistakes

One axis of student aid reform should therefore be a better understanding of the profile of these poor students who have left their families, who fly under the radar of public assistance while their parents help them little. One of the results of the research is that the poverty of these homeless students is not statistically related to the social origin of their parents, which undoubtedly explains why a large number of them are not entitled to scholarships according to social criteria. Denied scholarships, their parents at the same time help them very little (for reasons that the study cannot fully explain).

It is precisely on this point that we can agree with one of the arguments presented by the UNEF president: by awarding scholarships based on parents’ income, we exclude from their benefits students whose families do not meet the requirements and who are still personally in a situation of poverty. This is basically the case when the French system of balance between family aid and public assistance is dysfunctional. Theoretically, the grant system is not designed to compensate for the lack of assistance that parents, when their income allows, are obliged to provide to their children “until the latter are able to provide for their own needs” (Articles 203 and 371-2 of the Civil Code). Nevertheless, these cases clearly exist and it would be necessary to respond to them. Public authorities should try to identify these situations of family failure and find a way to correct them. That would be a more realistic, credible and ultimately fairer action than a generalized allowance for autonomy.

[1] OVE info, no. 42, September 2020, “Student life during the covid-19 pandemic: uncertainties, transformations and weaknesses”

[2] OVE, Milestones 2020

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

[4] In practice, this consisted of calculating minimum expenses and income for 24 standard situations by combining place of residence (Ile-de-France vs. other regions), sector of study, the fact of living or not living with parents and whether or not you have a scholarship.

[5] Herpin Nicolas and Verger Daniel (1998), ‘Students, other young people, their families and poverty’, Economics and statistics No. 308-310, October 1998, p. 211-227.

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