Politics

Cost of living crisis turns higher education into a privilege

6 Mins read

As households tune in to the Martin Lewis Money Show, and food bank usage continues to soar, it is no secret that the UK is still struggling with the cost of living crisis.

No matter your age or occupation, money struggles are becoming a common topic of conversation amongst us, yet those hit the hardest by the cost of living crisis may be the students of this country.

Around 92% of students think that the cost of living has increased compared to a year ago, according to an April 2023 survey conducted by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), in which 1,965 students participated.

Alfie Simmons, 20 years-old, is on his placement year as a part of his studies at Loughborough University.

“When you’re on placement the government reduce your loan and even though my placement is unpaid I’m still getting a loan that doesn’t even cover half my living costs. Student Finance are useless as they are impossible to get in touch with and have said no to giving me more support despite not having the money to cover my living costs.”

Alfie has found the cost of living crisis to have a significant impact on his studies during the last academic year.

“It has added lots more stress and anxiety over money and living costs, therefore affecting the amount you can focus on studying as you spend a lot of your time working out how much money you need to save doing basic things,” he said.

“I think indirectly it can affect your focus and motivation as the cost-of-living crisis is causing stress and anxiety around money which is always on your mind and therefore your studying may take a back seat.”

The Office of National Statistics reported nearly four-in-ten adults across Great Britain (39%) have spent more than usual to get what they normally buy when food shopping within the past two weeks.

Although inflation has eased in the last couple of months, more than four-in-ten adults (43%) said they were buying less food when shopping in the same period.

“The government needs a whole reshuffle really. I do feel anger towards them but I’m more just drained of it all at this point.”

Ruby

“During my first year I shopped in Tesco all year mainly due to it being the closest supermarket but, since the cost of living crisis has kicked in, I now mainly shop in Aldi even though it is much further away, just so I can save some money on my shop. Also, whilst shopping, I am now budgeting a lot more than I was before,” Alfie told us.

“I think I’ve definitely gone out less since the crisis began as it’s something you have to sacrifice to ensure you have enough money for bills and food.”

Many students are in the same boat when it comes to facing the cost of living crisis so they are finding ways to cut corners and save money, such as cooking meals together to split food costs.

“Most people are going through similar problems as I’ve noticed a lot of people not going out to save money and know many that are using overdrafts just to make sure they can pay their bills,” Alfie said.

“Supermarkets make it so expensive to buy and cook for one person it’s much easier to buy meals with other people to save money. Another good way to save money is by avoiding public transport where possible and walking most places which obviously becomes difficult if you’re in a bigger city.”

Student life isn’t all parties and eating Pot Noodle. Part of the reason young people gravitate towards university is for the societies and sports teams, for both social and health benefits. Yet, these come at a cost.

“I don’t think the university is very inclusive in terms of extra-curricular activities, as the prices for joining sports teams and societies have stayed the same despite the increasing cost-of-living. I think it’s only realistic to be part of at most one sports team or society as the costs are very expensive and along with travel and kit costs this can end up being crazy expensive,” said Alfie.

When asked, 46% of students reported their mental health and well-being had worsened since the start of the Autumn term 2022, according to the Office of National Statistics.

“It’s the same promises over and over from the Government and universities but nothing actually changes, it’s not fair.”

Alfie

“It causes lots of stress about money and anxiety about whether you’re going to have enough money to pay bills and get food. I think it can also cause loneliness as if you turn down opportunities to socialise due to not having the money to do so you can shut yourself away.”

Despite universities recognising both the cost of living impact on money and mental health, it appears it isn’t as simple as stated to access additional support.

“It’s a very difficult process to get through and despite me sending an email to Student Support Services about money struggles, I did not receive a response from them, showing although the support may in fact be there, they are not putting in much effort to ensure people actually benefit from it,” said Alfie.

“It’s the same promises over and over from the Government and universities but nothing actually changes, it’s not fair,” he said.

If he was to start university now, knowing about the impact of the cost of living crisis, Alfie would put off going: “I don’t think the stress is worth it and instead of being out of pocket you could be working and earning money.”

We approached Universities UK, the collective voice of universities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, to comment on the effects the cost of living crisis is having on higher education.

“These are difficult times for many students, especially those from low-income backgrounds. Universities have stepped up efforts to alleviate financial pressures during the cost-of-living crisis, but the sector cannot address this issue alone,” they said in a statement.

“We need to look more closely at how well the current system is helping students and what changes need to be made by the government, including an uplift in living allowance and the potential to bring back maintenance grants. 

“With inflation still high, it’s imperative that the maintenance support package is reviewed to ensure that no student is forced to make decisions about their future due to financial pressures.” 

University leaders have been asking for changes to be made to the current maintenance support package in order for students to return their focus to studies rather than many spending their study hours working in a job to pay bills.

Although the Department of Education made a total of £276 million available to universities to extend scholarships and bursary schemes, many students feel they aren’t seeing the benefits of these numbers.

Ruby is a first year Multimedia Journalism student at Bournemouth University, juggling a part time job alongside her studies. Working in a media company, Ruby often has to miss days of university which is not ideal.

“I have less time to focus on my assignments but I need the money. I have definitely been out less this year in comparison to last year and changed what I buy on my food shop. I have been keeping an eye out for shelf life and what might last me longer.”

Ruby is one of the students taking advantage of sharing with housemates to cut costs: “I share a lot with my housemates like toilet rolls and teabags so we are not spending on six individual packs for example. I also find student discounts at places useful and am always checking if places offer it.”

Student stressed out
When asked, 46% of students said their mental health and wellbeing has worsened during the cost of living crisis [Unsplash: Elisa Ventur]

Ruby has also been affected by anxiety due to the cost of living crisis: “I worry about the cost of living crisis affecting my studies, I’d say it already does to be honest. It’s quite hard to find time for studies as well as trying to have a social life.

“It’s definitely affected my mental health to a point, nothing severe but I am definitely stressed 90% of the time,” she laughed. “I guess that’s a normality for university students at the moment.”

“I’m in a similar position to my friends in terms of struggling with the cost of living crisis but slightly different in terms of student loans. I’m on the minimum loan which covers about two thirds of my rent whereas a lot of my friends’ loans cover their rent and bills taking a bit of pressure off.”

Students largely blame the government when it comes to cost of living crisis and the impact it is having on their higher education.

“The government needs a whole reshuffle really. I do feel anger towards them but I’m more just drained of it all at this point, they’ve turned so many things upside down that this is just one of many, Ruby said.

“I think they could definitely change the loan system, looking at outgoings of students’ parents as well as just income as monthly income doesn’t really give all the information needed for them to decide how much loan we’re entitled to.”

She also shares the view that now knowing how the cost of living crisis impacts university life it would definitely impact her decision to go to university or not.

“To be honest I would be reluctant. I really enjoy my life here but for what my course and the university offers I wouldn’t say it’s totally worth the money,” she said.

As we enter another year at war with the cost of living crisis, we may see the number of young people opting for gap years and travelling experiences multiply, following in the footsteps of many of our European neighbours.


Feature image by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

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