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Learning with the lights off: students and the cost of living crisis

  • 1 November 2022
  • By Andrew Jones

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Andrew Jones, Head of Policy and Research, MillionPlus.

Over recent months, the cost of living crisis facing students has quickly become one of the most discussed issues in higher education. Modest rises to student finance have been wiped out by record inflation and students remain largely overlooked in the range of support measures announced by the Government since April. Our recent report, ‘Learning with the lights off: students and the cost of living crisis’, warns that without immediate intervention, the crisis could lead to more than 300,000 students being at risk of financial hardship this autumn.

Recent analysis by UUK and the NUS has shown that two-thirds of students are worried about living costs, with many planning to cut essential spending on food, heating and transport. We at MillionPlus have built on this work by examining the HEPI / AdvanceHE Student Academic Experience Survey (SAES) in an effort to identify which students are most at-risk of financial hardship as the cost of living crisis bites. The responses, gathered prior to a summer of rising prices, suggest that large numbers of students will struggle.

In response to a question about financial worries, 17 per cent of students stated their concern with every aspect of their personal finances. These students, categorised as at-risk given subsequent price increases, represent between 300,000 and 338,000 of the UK’s student population. Most in danger of financial hardship are Black students and those aged over 25, with around 40,000 black students and 41,000 mature students at risk. Students from working-class backgrounds and students who commute to campus are also more likely to encounter financial difficulties this autumn.

Our analysis shows that around six per cent of students polled in the SAES cited worsening finances as the reason they considered quitting their course. Closer examination shows that, once again, over-25s are more likely to have considered quitting as a result of financial pressures. This is especially concerning in the context of reductions in mature and part-time learning over the past decade. Other groups more likely to have experienced these pressures are those living alone, students who are the first in their family to attend university and those from lower participating areas of the country. 

These findings are particularly concerning as financial struggles are closely associated with experiencing mental health difficulties and underpin thoughts of leaving university. An NUS study demonstrated that more than 90 per cent of students reported a worsening of their mental health because of the cost of living crisis. Furthermore, deteriorating mental health was given in the SAES as the most common reason students had considered leaving their studies. 

Our research demonstrates that unless students are immediately targeted in government support measures, the detrimental impact on dropout rates is very real. And given the students most at risk, the impact on widening participation could be devastating.

But universities have been working hard over the summer to lessen the impact of rising costs. Amongst these are MillionPlus universities who, as educators of the majority of the at-risk students outlined above, are already playing a vital role in trying to curb rising student costs and offering practical solutions to alleviate some of the burden on students.

One of the strategies undertaken by MillionPlus institutions is to increase hardship funding and widening eligibility for those funds. Campaigns in partnership with student groups are helping to signpost this assistance and remove any stigma of applying for help. Universities have also sought to reduce costs faced by students. Free meals have been made available alongside discounted food and household goods sold on and around campuses. Attendance rules have been relaxed for students having to commute to campus, while additional space is being made available for those concerned about the cost of heating their own accommodation during the day. Finally, systems implemented to help identify emerging patterns in the student population during the pandemic have been applied to the current crisis. This allows real-time targeting of help as the crisis evolves.

But even despite these measures, the scale of the crisis is too large for universities to tackle alone. 

The UK and devolved governments must also act swiftly and decisively to lessen the financial burden on students. First, an immediate increase in maintenance funding, ideally in the form of maintenance grants is needed; but the urgency of the situation is such that increased loan payments would bring welcome relief in the short-term. Secondly, students must be better included in the packages of help announced throughout 2022. There should be a particular focus on ensuring that energy bill payments are passed on to the large proportion of student tenants paying rent with bills included. And, finally, we need to see an immediate increase in hardship funds available for distribution by universities. Universities can play their part by targeting these funds where they are most needed and signposting students at risk to the help available. 

The revision of the mini budget is a prime opportunity to address the lack of support measures for students, and if the UK Government wishes to prevent the very real possibility of a student recruitment and retention crisis in higher education, it is an opportunity they cannot afford to miss.

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