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HEPI polling shows only a third of students think England’s system of maintenance support is fair – and most are financially worse off than a year ago

  • 2 May 2024
  • By Josh Freeman

*** We are hosting a webinar on student maintenance support next Thursday 9th May: you can sign up here. ***

Ahead of the launch of a major new report on student maintenance next Thursday 9th May, HEPI and TechnologyOne are publishing exclusive new polling revealing student attitudes to maintenance support and the cost-of-living crisis.

The polling shows that the cost-of-living crisis continues to hit students hard:

  • Nearly three-fifths of students (58%) say their financial situation has got worse over the last year, with a third (33%) saying they are at risk of dropping out as a result.
  • Three-fifths (60%) say money concerns affected which university they chose to go to.
  • If students received an extra £500, nearly half (47%) would put it into savings and a quarter (24%) would spend it on groceries.
  • By contrast, if they had £500 less to spend, students would cut back on social activities (42%), nights out (40%) and do more paid work (42%).
  • Just over a third (36%) of English students think the system of maintenance support in their country is fair, compared with 58% of Welsh students, 59% of Scottish students and 37% of Northern Irish students.

Josh Freeman, Policy Manager at HEPI and author of the research, said:

The Prime Minister has told us ‘the plan is working’ and people are starting to see the benefits of a recovering economy. These results suggest the benefits of any economic upturn have not been felt by students.

The financial situation of many, already challenging, has worsened in the last year. The high number of students indicating they are at risk of dropping out should set off alarm bells, as these students are hard-working and capable enough to be in higher education, but they may no longer be able to stay there. Just as worrying is what students must give up to stay in higher education – social events, extracurricular experiences, and good grades, in favour of cutting back and taking on ever more hours of part-time work.


These results are based on polling conducted by Savanta in February 2024. The survey received 2,043 responses and these are weighted by gender, age and ethnicity to reflect the broader student population in the UK. The margin of error at a 95% confidence level is approximately ±2.18 percentage points.

The survey was answered by 1,281 undergraduate students, 521 postgraduate students and 221 pre-degree students.

For clarity, the results are presented here in a different order to the order in which they were originally put to students. The full results, including questions that are not discussed below and various cross-breaks, are available on the HEPI website.

University experience

Our polling shows students are continuing to feel the brunt of financial difficulties, with more than half reporting their situation has worsened in the last year (58%), they have missed out on extracurricular activities because of their financial situation (53%) and they have missed out on social experiences because of the cost (55%). A third (33%) say finances put them at risk of dropping out.

Figure 1: % agreeing with each statement, all responses.

Similarly, students report having missed out on opportunities due to the cost, such as internships, research and even their career of choice. Strikingly, three-fifths (60%) say money affected what university they had chosen to attend.

Figure 2: % agreeing with each statement, all responses.

We asked students whether they undertake paid employment during the term: just under two-thirds (64%) said they do, with a slightly higher proportion of female students doing so (67%) than men (60%). We then asked those students who work what challenges they face. Two-thirds (67%) find it difficult to balance work with their studies, suggesting undertaking paid work could be competing with academic performance for a growing number of students.

Figure 3: Which of the following challenges have you faced as a result of undertaking paid employment? (Those who undertake paid employment during the term: unweighted base = 1277.)

More than half of students (54%) say their financial situation affects their mental health, with male students worse affected (56%), but male students were also more likely to say they had friends to talk to about finances (70%) than female students (62%).

Figure 4: % agreeing, all responses.

Lastly in this section, we asked students whether, overall, financial challenges had ‘significantly’ affected their university experience. Nearly two-thirds agreed it had (60%), rising to 64% among postgraduates and 79% of pre-degree students.

Figure 5: % agreeing, all responses.

In free text boxes, students gave a range of reasons for their answers. We share some of their quotes below.[1]

I did rugby until I couldn’t afford it anymore and it hurt to have to leave.

Of those who said ‘Agree’ or ‘Strongly agree’ to the above question, a number talked about part-time work:

[I am] having to work a job when others are socialising and able to put all of their time into self-studying, and then comparing my grades to these people.

Money worries and exhaustion from working mean I ‘fit’ my studies around work often when they should be my priority.

[It] makes me consider whether I can afford opportunities that come up (e.g. internship opportunities), due to the balance with paid work.

To have a typical student experience you need to be at a baseline, but this is unattainable without parental help or part-time work. Part-time work means that even though you have the money you can’t take part in these experiences anyway.

Others talked about the effect on social and extracurricular activities:

Because it means I’m hungry a lot of the time and have to say no to seeing friends and stuff. Also I live in a dump because it’s the cheapest place.

Can’t afford to experience things outside of university. Can’t afford even a night out once a month.

Sporting societies which were a large attraction of university to me are too expensive for me to attend. I did rugby until I couldn’t afford it anymore and it hurt to have to leave.

Some talked about the effect on their mental health.

Every aspect of my life is governed by the worry of debt and making ends meet each day.

Because money is always at the back of my mind for any purchasing decision at uni, whether that is food, travel or something else.

And others talked more broadly about balancing financial challenges with the other aspects of university. Some students talk about struggling to pay university ‘fees’; these are presumably international or postgraduate students.

I was faced with the choice of having to work to pay my rent and had to sacrifice my grades. I got 50% but that would have been 70% if I didn’t have to go to work.

Without having to worry about money, I feel I could concentrate more on my studies and put more time/effort in.

I am almost broke. I need to pay my school fees. I need to work to do that. If I work to pay my school fees, I can’t study. 

Of the students who put ‘Disagree’ or ‘Strongly disagree’, they frequently noted that they were more financially comfortable because of money they received from family or because they were careful with money. Some mentioned the benefits of part-time work.

I am lucky, I budget well, and have parents who support me financially.

It didn’t have significant impact on my experience – but I was conscious about my finances.

I am lucky enough to have savings from summer work, student loan and support from family.

They have had an impact upon my university experience in terms of taking up time, however, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as many mature students have family responsibilities to manage alongside study. All in all, working has bought more positives than negatives.

I’m kind of in denial about it sometimes.

Student spending habits

In the next section, we asked students how they would respond to changes in their financial situation. We asked them to imagine what they would do if they were £500 better off, and then £500 worse off.

If they received an extra £500, almost half of students (47%) said they would put the money into savings, with students otherwise prioritising their studies (25%), paying back borrowed money (24%) and buying additional groceries (24%).

Figure 6: Suppose you suddenly had £500 extra to spend over the year than you do now. Perhaps you received more government support or received a gift from family. Which of the following would you likely do with this extra £500? (All responses; respondents could choose multiple options.)

The fact that such a high proportion of students would put the money into savings may appear unexpected. Given the other responses to questions in this survey, we think it is unlikely that many students are saving for large purchases, such as a car or deposit for a house, for when they finish their higher education course. Instead, one or more of the following may be taking place:

  • Students under financial pressure are reluctant to increase their day-to-day spending because they may feel any spending increases would not be sustainable.
  • They may want to create a financial buffer in case their financial situation worsens in the future.
  • They may expect to draw down on the savings over the summer, or after graduating, when maintenance support is typically not provided.
  • They may wish to replenish savings they have previously dipped into because their situation was poorer than expected.

Also unexpected may be the one-quarter (24%) of students who would pay back money borrowed. As government loans are typically not paid back until a student graduates and begins earning a good salary, this suggests many students are currently relying on loans from other sources, either from someone they know or from commercial lenders.

By contrast, students’ spending when faced with a potential loss of £500 is much more elastic: that is, students appear much quicker to reduce spending than to increase it. Again, this suggests that students would behave (or believe that they would behave) cautiously with money. The most popular options were doing more hours of paid work (42%), spending less on social activities (42%) and eating out less (40%). More than a third (35%) said they would cut down on groceries.

Figure 7: Now suppose you suddenly had £500 less to spend over the year than you do now. Perhaps the level of government support decreased or there was an emergency or unexpected cost. Which of the following actions would you likely take in response to having £500 less? (All responses; respondents could choose multiple options.)

The survey found that female students’ spending is significantly more elastic than male students. Female students were much more willing to spend more if given more money, but also seemed more willing to cut down on spending if they had less money.

Figure 8: spending changes in response to financial changes for the top six most popular choices. The left-hand side represents decisions in response to an increase of £500, the right-hand side represents a decrease of £500

Maintenance support

To focus respondents’ attention on maintenance support, we showed respondents the following text:

The remaining questions focus on maintenance support. This is money that many students receive from the government to support their living costs while at university.

In some UK nations, students attending university must also pay tuition fees to go to university.

Please think only about maintenance support and not tuition fees when answering the remaining questions.

We then split students into four groups, depending on the nation of their home domicile (where they live outside of term-time) and asked them what they thought of the maintenance system in their country. Most responses (around 1800) were from England, with 55 from Wales, 140 from Scotland and 35 from Northern Ireland.

As figure 9 shows, Wales has the UK’s most generous maintenance system, especially because the amount a student is eligible to receive does not vary by household income (though a smaller proportion is provided as a grant as income increases). The maximum support available in Scotland has historically been lower than in England, but in 2024 will overtake England due to the introduction of a new ‘special support loan’ worth £2,400 a year. The maximum amount available in Northern Ireland is the lowest of the four nations.

Figure 9: Maximum maintenance support available, by UK nation, for a student living away from home & studying outside London, 2023/24 and 2024/25.

Despite this, the students domiciled in Scotland felt their system was significantly fairer than English students. Net agreement (% agreeing minus % disagreeing) was +49% for Welsh students, closely followed by +42% for Scottish students. By contrast, net agreement was -4% for English students, indicating more students disagreed than agreed.

Figure 10: % agreeing/disagreeing and net agreement (% agreeing minus % disagreeing).

Despite being directed not to think about tuition fees, it is possible the fact that tuition is free in Scotland improves Scottish students’ general perception of the funding system, while the comparatively high tuition fees in England may be contributing to a sense of unfairness.

We then asked students about whether they would support two potential policy initiatives: increasing the level of maintenance support, and a wholesale switch to grants. Unsurprisingly, students were strongly supportive of both. However, their support for grants was more equivocal, suggesting they understand a switch to grants could have downsides, such as an overall reduction in the amount of support available.

Figure 11: % agreeing/disagreeing and net agreement (% agreeing minus % disagreeing).
Figure 12: % agreeing/disagreeing and net agreement (% agreeing minus % disagreeing). The nature of the ‘current system’ was explained in each nation.

Finally, we asked students whether they feel students are a political priority. Perhaps surprisingly, Welsh students feel less of a priority than English and Scottish students. However, the overall picture is clear: students in all nations generally do not feel they are the priority of the government there.

Figure 13: % agreeing/disagreeing and net agreement (% agreeing minus % disagreeing).

Support from institutions

The HEPI report How to beat a cost-of-learning crisis has previously explored how institutions are supporting students through the crisis: we wanted to understand how students felt about the support they receive. Attitudes are typically mixed. More students feel they knew where to go for support (48%) than do not (34%), but students are evenly split on questions of whether their institutions would support them (36% versus 33%) and notice if there was a problem (40% versus 35%).

Figure 14: % agreeing and disagreeing with each statement and net agreement (% agreeing minus % disagreeing).

To find out more about how students access support, we asked them whether they had used a ‘digital interface’, such as a website form, to access support. Around a third (32%) have, and of those who have not, they were split evenly between those who had not needed support and those who were not aware of digital interfaces being available.

Figure 15: All responses

Of those who had used a digital interface, they were broadly positive about the available services, with a significant majority agreeing the interfaces were easy to use (79%) and did everything they were needed for (71%).

Figure 16: Proportion agreeing/disagreeing and net agreement (% agreeing minus % disagreeing).

We then asked whether, overall, students were satisfied with their institutions’ response to the cost-of-living crisis. Again, attitudes were mixed, with 30% agreeing and 26% disagreeing. However, responses varied significantly by socioeconomic group, which puts students into six categories A to E based on the occupations of their parents. Those in lower socioeconomic groups, whose parents are in semi-skilled or unskilled manual occupations, or are unemployed, are significantly less satisfied than those in higher groups, whose parents are in managerial or professional roles.

Figure 17: Proportion agreeing/disagreeing and net agreement (% agreeing minus % disagreeing) by socioeconomic classification.

Students were again given the opportunity to explain why they gave their answer. Among those agreeing or strongly agreeing, students frequently explained how much they appreciated the support they had received, highlighted where their institution had communicated effectively.

They have a student pantry and they run deals on textbook prices. They also ran a cost of living programme in the winter months where you could access a free meal on campus which was amazing.

They gave every student some money and have created cosy spots on campus with heating, blankets, a microwave and hot water.

Because my institution has sent out regular emails relaying where we can go for guidance and alerting students to student discount offers which they may have not noticed.     

My university may also have provided guidance on financial planning and budgeting. This has been very helpful to me as it has helped me to manage my finances better and to avoid some unnecessary expenses.

Very reasonable capping of prices for food, rent, utilities, and facilities managed by the university, and increased support provisions for those in need.

The school has tried their best in helping us financially. They may allow us to decrease hours in our classes so as to get more outside work done with the possibility of still catching up with the class. They also have placed opportunities for selected few with substantial grants that may help us through a 2 month period depending on how we spend it.

Those disagreeing sometimes acknowledged the constraints that institutions themselves are under, but typically indicated the support they had received, if any, was not enough to make a significant difference to their financial situation. A number mentioned not qualifying for support because of their parents’ income.

The campus shop is a fuckin ripoff and there’s hidden charges everywhere. Like come on dude.

Rent in my city is very expensive and the university have previously provided £100 grants for rent but it is nowhere near enough, especially for undergraduate students. It is impossible for undergraduates to live in this city on student loan alone so people are either forced to work lots of hours alongside their degrees or have to be from rich families to attend here. The university has not done enough to help.

All they have done to my knowledge is email us about where we can use, showers/kitchens on campus and local food banks.

They support students who are in dire need of support however for those who are from low income families but are just above the threshold for the poverty line I believe they go unnoticed.

I’m not aware of any meaningful response. That said, I’m not sure what they could do. There just doesn’t seem to be enough money to go around.

The institution increased rent by roughly 24% in 2023-2024, and it is set increase by a further 17% for 2024-2025. Last year we had a pantry which was free to use by students and a supper club that provided free breakfast & evening meals on Tuesdays & Thursdays. The students union had to lobby for these resources to run still as the institution cut budgets severely.

I feel slightly cheated, considering all that has happened.

Those putting ‘neither agree nor disagree’ tended to reflect on the challenges institutions face making a meaningful difference to students.

I am not sure what resources exactly the institution has to deploy in response to this crisis, especially considering the university already does not adequately compensate teaching staff for their workloads or give researchers secure contracts.

I’m not sure as to what they are doing exactly to help with it.

Many of my tutors have mentioned it and its very clear that they care, but from the greater university I haven’t heard as much.

Trying to make things easier for customers but ultimately they are a business so are still making money on us.

Because they are getting more requests for help and they are doing the best they can!


It is understandable why some students may feel ‘cheated’. A large proportion of students do not have enough to meet their living costs, and this significantly affects the quality of their university experience. This is not what is advertised, and we might imagine it is not what many students expect when they arrive.

In next thursday’s paper, we will consider solutions to the Cost-of-Learning Crisis. There is certainly more that some institutions can do, but that paper will focus on the potential for a ‘reset’ in government maintenance support. As we approach a UK general election, all parties should carefully consider the ongoing struggles faced by students and how their situation might be improved.

[1] Some responses have had minor grammatical changes which did not alter the meaning.

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