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Students’ cost of living: The HE general election issues, day 5

  • 9 June 2024
  • By Josh Freeman
  • HEPI is running a seven-day blog series on important election-related issues, which is aimed primarily at non-specialist readers. This fifth piece, written by HEPI’s Policy Manager, outlines issue of a student cost-of-living crisis and the options to address it.
  • The first piece, which looks at student voters, is here; the second piece, which focuses on funding, is here; the third piece, which focuses on research spending, is here; and the fourth, which focuses on internationalisation, is here.
  • If you are not yet registered to vote at the forthcoming general election, you can still register here (until 11.59pm on Tuesday, 18 June 2024):
  • There is (just) time to register for the HEPI Annual Conference on ‘Higher education on the cusp of the general election’, sponsored by Kortext and TechnologyOne, which is taking place in central London on Thursday, 13 June 2024. There are a (very) small number of seats left.

Students are doubly affected by the cost-of-living crisis, as costs have gone up while the key component of their income, student maintenance support, has fallen in real terms. Most students say their financial situation has worsened over the past year and one-third say financial challenges put them at risk of leaving their programme. Research by the National Union of Students (NUS) suggests around one-in-10 students has used a food bank.

Source: HEPI and TechnologyOne polling of students, conducted in February 2024 by Savanta

Universities have responded with a range of packages to support students. For example, HEPI’s own research shows over one-quarter (27%) of universities now operates a food bank, including one-third (33%) of Russell Group universities.

Source: Josh Freeman, How to beat a cost-of-learning crisis: Universities’ support for students, HEPI, 2023

The recent HEPI / TechnologyOne report A Minimum Income Standard for Students, with research conducted by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University, suggests full-time undergraduates need around £18,600 outside London (and around £21,800 in London) to have a minimum acceptable standard of living that enables them to live with dignity and to become involved with student life.

However, maintenance support in all four parts of the UK falls significantly short of this level. A full-time undergraduate student from England studying outside London can only receive a maximum maintenance loan of £10,200, meaning they fall short of the minimum standard by £8,400. In Wales and Scotland, the maximum available support covers a slightly higher proportion of students’ costs (65% and 61% respectively).

How much of students’ costs are covered by maintenance support

As a result, over half of full-time students now do paid employment during term-time. Our calculations suggest students need to work nearly 19 hours a week on the National Minimum Wage in England, 15 hours in Wales, 16 in Scotland and 23 in Northern Ireland to reach the Minimum Income Standard.

These challenges are having a clear impact on the student experience. The annual HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey shows over half (55%) of full-time undergraduate students now do paid work during term-time. Some students are working many days each week to meet their costs, which is likely to be having a detrimental impact on their academic work. In London, many students are opting to live at home because of the financial challenges and it is possible this issue will, in time, affect other parts of the UK. As recommend by three university vice-chancellors in a HEPI Report looking forward to the General Election, greater support for students is needed to ensure financial challenges do not prevent students from accessing and succeeding in higher education.

Funding for postgraduate students has also not kept up with the cost of living. For example, in England a Master’s Loan worth £10,000 was introduced in 2016/17 to help with both maintenance and tuition costs. In 2024/25, this Master’s Loan will be worth £12,471, which will many instances not cover even half of a student’s total costs. Although there are likely to be other causes too, this may help to explain the drop in the number of home students on taught Master’s courses.

Further reading

  • Katherine Hill, Matt Padley and Josh Freeman, A Minimum Income Standard for Students, HEPI and TechnologyOne, May 2024
  • National Union of Students, Cost of Living Crisis: HE Students, November 2022

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