HUNDREDS of students across Scotland have today joined together to sign an open letter to the government demanding a review of the impact of Universal Credit (UC) on their lives and ability to continue in higher education.

The group say UC has “fundamentally disregarded students” in the way it calculates their income, with lone parents, the disabled and students from low income families among the hardest hit.

Paloma Paige, president of the St Andrews University Students’ Association, is the main signatory of the letter and warns of the long-term impact on access to education.

She said: “The effects on student claimants puts widening access and diversity initiatives at risk. It is simply unacceptable that some of our most vulnerable students are left behind by a policy which should be supporting them.”

UC is the supposed flagship reform of the benefits system, uniting six ‘legacy’ benefits - including tax credits, housing benefit and unemployment benefit - into one paid monthly, but it has proved hugely controversial. Designed to simplify the system, but has proved hugely controversial, with many saying they are worse off and at a greater risk of hunger, debt and rent arrears.

According to the National Union of Students (NUS), those who claim UC are harder hit than those who work, as for every £1 that someone earns through work, they see 63p deducted from their monthly payments.

However, for students who claim UC, their loans and grants are regarded as unearned income and therefore untaxed, so for each £1 they receive, they lose the same amount from their claim.

In the letter, signed by students from universities including St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling and Dundee, they state: “Many students are now finding themselves in a position where it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain their place at university or colleges up, while trying to keep roofs over their heads and feed and clothe their families. This is particularly true for lone parent students, students with low-income families and disabled students. This is down to Universal Credit and how it deducts student income.”

“Universal Credit is the benefit that we are constantly being told is designed to ‘make work pay’, but claimants are finding this is not the case, especially students.” Does putting in a full-time working week at university not count as work? Under legacy benefits such as tax credits student income is not taken in to account, allowing families to still receive child tax credit alongside their student loan which would go a long way to helping offset the costs of raising a family, but because Universal Credit classes student income as unearned income it is taken into account and deducted pound for pound, leaving many claimants with no award or very little.”

The letter adds that the system will “stop disadvantaged students taking up places at university that they have worked incredibly hard for” and calls on the government to review how students are impacted, adding: “If this is allowed to continue then we are potentially denying our country of seeing some of our best and brightest from fulfilling their potential and this in turn will have a knock-on effect for universities, who will start to notice a decrease in their student intake.

“What does this say for the future of our world-renowned university system and research hubs that play such an important part in the world stage? This does not look like the meritocratic society we are told we live in.”

The open letter calls on the government to review how students are impacted “to allow for more support and to allow families to lift themselves out of the trap of poverty and low paid jobs.”

It states: “Surely it is in the government’s interests to re-evaluate this if they truly want to reduce child poverty, increase upward mobility and prove that we are not the socially closed society that it is increasingly looking like.

Ms Paige, who has been campaigning on the issue in her role as president, said the situation at the moment is “unacceptable”.

She said last night: “Universal Credit has fundamentally disregarded students in the way it calculates student income. This has been felt by students and their representatives across the country, as the 200-plus signatories of this letter demonstrate.”

One St Andrews student, Sandra Mitchell, a 35-year-old single mother, said that after she started her history and divinity course at St Andrews, she lost about £240 a month in benefit money.

Ms Mitchell, from Dundee, said: “I’m the only person in the household who brings in any income. I’m left with just my student income as I don’t get any universal credit. Under the previous system I would’ve still received child tax credits but under the new system I’ve lost out on that.”

“It means that it’s very difficult to focus on your studies when you’re constantly worrying about finances, when you take into account your travel, your lunches, and books that can be very costly.”

A DWP spokesman said: “If people make a choice to move into education then it follows that they move across to the financial system students use, including maintenance grants and loans. Student loans are designed to financially support students and the maintenance element is classed as ‘unearned income’ for Universal Credit. £110 of the loan is disregarded per month and Universal Credit also disregards elements paid for specific additional costs, such as tuition or books.”