Anxious and isolated: How the cost of living crisis is affecting students
The UK economic crisis has seen rent and bills soar and budgets get tighter. Benedict Thompson investigates how the cost-of-living crisis will affect students in universities across the UK in terms of housing, food, travel and mental health.
UK students impacted by the cost-of-living crisis will need more help from the government and universities to survive. According to the National Union of Students, 96 per cent of students are cutting back on spending. Meanwhile, almost a third are left with just £50 a month after paying rent and bills.
Surely students won’t see a return to 1920s Germany where a loaf of bread cost £3 on one day to a couple of million pounds a few weeks later? The economic situation is beginning to look dire however: the UK has the highest rate of inflation of all the G7 countries, hitting 10.1 per cent in July.
Speaking on ITV News, money saving expert Martin Lewis, said “what we need is a willingness to take action and to grasp this to make sure there are millions of people in this country who don’t face the choice between starvation and freezing this winter. It is looking like that is a realistic choice if nothing is done for money”. With the price cap rising to £3,549 in October, David Cox, chief executive of London Energy Consulting, said the mechanism was “not protecting consumers in any way” and warned of “blackouts”.
73 per cent of students have had to borrow money to pay for essentials whilst 42 per cent have relied on their overdrafts.
Having just experience the record-breaking heat of summer, it is difficult to imagine just how ominous this is for students in the winter coming ahead. Students in the North of England will be particularly affected, due to poorer quality of housing and their reliance on cars, as the price of petrol continues to rise. Amid soaring energy bills and warnings about rising food prices, students will be forced to make difficult decisions.
A survey conducted by the Nationwide Building Society found that two thirds of students are struggling to afford their housing costs or have fallen back on it. They also found that 73 per cent of students have had to borrow money from family members to pay for essentials including their rent whilst 42 per cent have relied on their overdrafts.
Charities fear that soaring rent costs will force young people into homelessness. The survey states that one in five students know someone who has become homeless within the last year due to financial difficulties – which constitutes sofa-staying, staying in a hostel or rough sleeping. One in seven fear that they may become homeless within the next six months.
Patrick Mulrenan, an associate professor of learning at London Metropolitan University, was really “taken aback” at the response to a survey email to students in one school at the university asking about homelessness. “We interviewed 16 of them and it came out very clearly it was massively affecting them personally, and their children. It was a real struggle for them, living in temporary accommodation, being moved around. One moved nine times. They were finding it very difficult to concentrate on their studies because always at the back of their mind was, ‘I’ve got to sort out my accommodation’.”
A recent survey by the National Union of Students discovered that 11 per cent of students are using foodbanks, up from 5 per cent in January 2022. One in five say they are unable to buy toiletries and one in 10 cannot purchase sanitary products when required.
This comes after the UK government has capped the interest rate on student loans in England and Wales to 6.3 per cent this autumn. The student loan cap, which reflects the most recent data on market rates for loans, will put students on the brink.
Students have fired away at the lack of support given by their universities to help with food vouchers. One twitter user @ruby_dunn01 has said that it is “concerning” that her university is recommending students download Olio and TGTG for free/cheap food.
Students are struggling to cope with the additional pressures that have arisen from the cost-of-living crisis
In a recent study, 42 per cent of students say they are unable to make it on to campus or are being forced to travel less. This is creating a two-tier university system where students from poorer backgrounds are being denied the chance to embrace opportunities at their first-choice universities, whilst the wealthy can study wherever they want.
Morgan Maize told Sky News, “Because of the size of the maintenance loan I would have been given, it did not seem feasible for me to go to university without getting two or three jobs to subsidize my payments. It didn’t seem feasible to study at Liverpool, so I ended up choosing Hull instead as it’s closer, my parents are at home there and I can go back for dinner whenever I want”. Similarly, Caitlin, a fresher at the University of York, says that part of the reason for selecting the university was its closeness to home, which she hoped would reduce her travel costs”.
Declining Mental Health
92 per cent of students say the crisis is affecting their mental health, with 31 per cent saying rising costs are having a “major” impact. Students have neither the time or the money to cope with the additional pressures that have arisen from the cost-of-living crisis- struggling to pay their rent, affording food and having a social life.
20-year-old student Olivia Gallagher studies at Nottingham Trent University. In an interview with Sky News, she said “having to work two jobs at university, managing a social life and balancing my studies, I’m falling behind a lot and have had to go through a lot of extensions with my tutors”.
An NUS spokesperson has said that “We’re hearing students struggling to get by. We’re seeing stress and anxiety piling on them from bouncing debt between different cards to stay afloat”.
New norm or cruel betrayal?
The Department for Education have asked the Office for Students to protect the £256m available to support poorer students and those who need additional help. Universities such as Durham have introduced guarantor schemes to give students easier access to renting property by providing a UK-based guarantor in order to rent a home, although the service costs 5.55 per cent of annual rental costs. However, the plans will give students virtually nothing in comparison to pre-cost-of-living crisis. Political commentators have also called for universities to increase the provision of university hardship funds as well as to provide free travel cards to enable attendance on campus.
However, universities have been accused of endangering some student’s education, leaving students alone and isolated. Emma Francis and Hannah Franklin, based at UCL, coordinated a letter on behalf of all London-based PhD students funded by the Medical Research Council, which is part of UKRI. “The current level of financial support provided by UKRI to PhD students is insufficient and unsustainable and creates a big diversity issue,” said Franklin. “They are curating an exclusive community, not providing equal opportunities for all”.
Government inaction to alleviate the cost-of-living crisis has also been criticized. Shadow justice secretary Steve Reed has described the UK government as a “zombie government” fighting like “rats in a sack” rather than coming up with solutions. The NUS has said the Government needed to put a tailored cost-of-living support package in place for students, adding that the student maintenance package and apprentice minimum wage needed to be brought into line with the living wage.