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How the cost-of-living crisis is affecting current and prospective students

The cost-of-living crisis has been particularly hard for students who, after two years of Covid uncertainty, now find themselves in yet another challenging situation. The National Student Money Survey published in September 2022 reports that 4 in 5 students considered dropping out of university, with 82% worried about making ends meet and 10% of students needing to use a food bank in the last academic year.

Money worries are very much at the top of students’ agenda. According to the survey, the maintenance loans now cover little more than half of the average students’ monthly living costs and students are less likely to rely on the other two most common sources of money - parents and a part time job. As a result, they have turned their focus to savings, their overdraft and credit cards as well as their friends for financial support.

A recent ONS survey carried out in October/November last year revealed that one in four students have taken on new debts in response to the rising costs of living, including those who borrowed more or used more credit than usual.

Students need to know what support is available to them

Curiously, there has also been a drop in the use of grants and funding year on year and 42% of students were unaware of options available to them. Some students reported finding the process of applying for funds quite long-winded, and not a system they could trust if they needed support in an emergency. The students we spoke to stressed how important it was for universities to take a more pro-active approach in keeping students aware of support available to them:

“Most students won’t really go out of their way to look for help, I think if it was more in their faces, it would help more.”

An urgent need to help students learn how to budget has also arisen. According to the NSM survey, 15% of students have never budgeted and 74% wish they had better financial education. The students we have recently approached for comment echoed those sentiments entirely:

“Advise students on budgeting and give them more information and tips on how to reduce costs or make money.”

“I think it would be good for universities to educate students on the reasons why costs are increasing, and how much things actually cost, so that there is a better awareness of how to deal with it”.

Students are increasingly concerned about the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on their academic performance. According to the ONS survey- more than three-quarters (77%) of students were concerned that the rising cost of living may affect how well they do in their studies. This impact is felt not just in terms of grades but also students’ basic needs such as sleep and diet, as well as their mental health and social life. Around 45% of students reported their mental health and well-being had worsened since the start of the 2022 autumn term, according to the survey, and their average level of life satisfaction was at 5.9 - significantly lower than the adult population in the UK (6.8).

Some students we spoke to expressed their concern around the lack of acknowledgment from Higher Education Institutions of the wider impact on their university experience: “There have been no adjustments considering the stresses caused because of rising living costs. They have no consideration for our mental health or wellbeing.”

How can students be helped effectively?

An NUS survey published November 2022, offered some suggestions around what the government and institutions could be doing. Unsurprisingly, financial support (bursaries/grants), particularly to help with the costs of food, energy, accommodation and travel, was the most common theme. Action on tuition fees was also highlighted.

We have seen plenty of initiatives being promoted across universities’ social channels, including emergency loan funds, cost-of-living funds, community funds and even one-off cost-of-living payments for full-time and part-time students. Many universities are now offering free breakfasts, whether it’s weekly or daily, as well as ‘pay what you can’ lunches. Some institutions have combined their food support with a social element and are putting together weekly events including free food, entertainment and book/clothes swap to make sure students don’t miss out on the social aspect of their university experience.

A lot more has to be done to support students through this challenging time. Students in England will receive an increase of just 2.8% in their maintenance loans should they decide to continue studying in September. The Sutton Trust, which campaigns to improve social mobility through education, has recently called for the government to “urgently review the amount of funding and support available to students”.