The cost of living crisis in the UK may conjure up images of a very Oliver Twist-esque winter, with families struggling to keep the heat on during this upcoming winter (a series of events we may see turn into reality in the upcoming months), but the one section of society that often gets overlooked in this scenario are university students, especially students from middle class and working families. According to a survey conducted by the National Union of Students, out of 3,500 students and apprentices, 96% students are cutting back on spending, and almost a third are left with only £50 a month in their bank account after paying rent and bills.
Many university students join the workforce alongside working towards their degree. While a part-time job is beneficial to gain transferable skills, it is no longer necessarily sufficient to keep the lights on, so to speak. Most universities recommend a work-life balance, and international students are particularly limited by the requirements of their Tier 4 visa restriction of a maximum of 20 hours work per week. However, a recent study found that one-in-ten students work 21-30 hours a week and a similar amount work more than 30 hours (or nearly the equivalent to a full-time job). The impact of working long hours while also studying full-time is evident in the rising mental health concerns around university students.
Almost a third [of students] are left with only £50 a month in their bank account after paying rent and bills
University student unions across the country are actively engaging in discussions with university management about the impact this is having on the larger student body and steps that can be taken by the universities to provide assistance. Within the varying levels of education, there is a slightly higher level of concern shared by postgraduate students, particularly those engaged in research about the direct effect the cost of living crisis is having on their professional and personal lives.
What are universities doing to help?
The fact that the upcoming winter is going to be harder than most has been known for a while, and so UK universities have taken the matter at hand seriously and tried to implement changes that could potentially benefit students as they face the cost of living crisis head on. University of Sheffield has opened their Swap Shop permanently, enabling students to refresh their wardrobes at no extra cost, while the University of Edinburgh has increased hardship funding and started providing childcare to students who require it as part of their financial support. Multiple Welsh Universities are providing food packages to students and cancelling library late fines to help with rising costs.
The University of Westminster Student Union (UWSU) has put out several calls to get the student body involved in the conversation about what are the pertinent concerns during these difficult times, and what support they would like the university to provide. The Cost of Living Action Committee has met previously in the semester, and is hosting an online event soon to hear wider concerns. There has also been dissemination of student based advice on different ways of combating the cost of living crisis.
At the doctoral level, the Graduate School hosted a series of meetings to address concerns raised by doctoral candidates about the hardships they are currently facing. Some of the issues that arose from the meetings are: ambiguous payment days of stipends, high fees during the writing up phase of the thesis, lack of support for migrant students and students who require childcare, housing problems, travel costs, and postgraduates not being paid the right amount for their extra teaching and/or research positions.
While some of these concerns have been addressed in the form of increased stipends for internally funded students as per UKRI guidelines, increased student hourly rates when employed by the University’s Talent Bank, discussions with Finance about staged payments of fees to ease financial stresses, flexibility with extensions and mitigating circumstances, and availability of software to be used remotely, there is still a lot that can be done, specifically when it comes to self-funded and international students who are restricted to a 20 hour work week and struggle to make ends meet on the London Living Wage. Larger concerns expressed by self-funded students must be taken into consideration and financial support should be provided by the university where possible.
Some of the larger actions that impact the student body at all levels that have been taken as a result of these conversations are:
- ‘Winter warmer’ discounts at cafés and restaurants for cost effective meals
- Free gym access for students at Regent Street and Harrow
- Free women’s sanitary products across all campuses
- Financial support for students experiencing hardships in the form of the Quentin Hogg Trust and Living Expenses Support Scheme
While these steps that can provide some sort of assistance while the larger concerns are being addressed, it does beg questions of whether universities across the board can do more to help their student body not become the ‘forgotten group’ during this cost of living crisis.
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