In a parallel universe (or just 20 years ago), going to university in the UK was free. Fast forward two decades and it’s no secret that college doesn’t come cheap. The annual sum of £9,250 has stuck in the minds of students for the past decade, meaning tuition alone costs £27,750 for most students over the course of a degree. three years.
Universities are well used to exhausting student finances, with some even charging for parking and laundry. And with student interest rates rising alongside the biggest drop in living standards since records began, is the rite of passage even worth it?
Apparently people think so – requests are at an all time high. Currently, the cost of living for an average student is £810 per month, exceeding the average maintenance loan of £340 per month.
The Tories are creating what looks like an economic dystopia: Among the onslaught of cost increases is National Insurance, which is to be raised to 1.25% to fund the health and social care tax, while Britons are expected to spend an extra £180 on food. This year. From groceries to the cost of broadband, energy and water bills, everything but our savings is increasing. Inflation is expected to peak at nearly 9% later this year, boosted by soaring energy prices and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
So why is the cost of living crisis hitting students particularly hard? The National Student Housing Survey, conducted by Save the Student, found that 80% of students were worried about the cost of living. While 58% of college students notice their energy bills rising due to the cost of living crisis, many are cutting back on shopping, dining out and socializing to compensate.
Meanwhile, nearly half have considered quitting due to financial worries. With 9% of students resorting to food banks during the pandemic, the cost of living crisis heightens concerns that disadvantaged students will inevitably face the greater consequences of expulsion and homelessness.
Niall Hignett, a first-year law student at Durham University, works more than 30 hours a week in addition to his studies, to support himself as a distant student (i.e. he does not have the support of a family network). Managing during the cost of living crisis will quickly become “difficult, if not impossible,” says Hignett. “It’s very obvious that my paid workload and my degree workload are not sustainable.” Next year his rental and utility bills are expected to rise by more than £2,000 a year. Help from universities is “not to be found”, he says.
The pre-existing support is already being diluted by inflation. While Durham University recently introduced a guarantor scheme to give students easier access to renting private properties by providing a UK-based guarantor to rent a house, Hignett says the service costs makes 5.5% of annual rental costs. He describes universities as “active contributors” to what will inevitably result in a student poverty catastrophe.
Tight budgets and excessive pasta consumption were already clichéd synonyms of student life, but the cost of living crisis will impact diets as well as bank balances. Julia Andrusiak, a 21-year-old student at the University of Liverpool, says ‘rising food prices are a big concern… I used to eat healthy, given the cheaper price of food ‘, but recently she says she’s started eating ‘lower quality food – and feeling worse’.
For Leo Karran, a final year genetics student at the University of Sheffield, rising rents and rising bills are “the most frightening aspects” of the cost of living crisis. His personal share of energy bills rose by £20 a month overnight – he and the four people he lives with have seen a monthly increase of £100.
In February, the chairman of Tesco said “the worst is yet to come” when it comes to rising food costs. Karran says he now times his stores to find out when “the widest variety of clearance will be here.” His bus fare, which he has to get due to a chronic illness which makes it difficult to walk long distances, was increased by 20 pence each way last month.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s measures to ease the impact of the crisis include a £200 energy bill loan and a £150 council tax refund. Households in AD Strip properties eligible to receive Council Tax Rebate this month. But unsurprisingly, student living conditions have not been incorporated into the government’s energy support package.
According to Save the Student, the rising cost of energy bills will hit students hardest. The £200 loan on the energy bill was presented as a ‘credit’, when in reality it is a loan disguised as support.
“A lot of students live in halls of residence or have their bills included in their rent, in which case they won’t get the £200 credit,” says Tom Allingham, managing editor at Save The Student. He adds that, above all, “they will still have to repay it in installments over the next few years. Moreover, even among those who receive it, there is a good chance that they will receive less than they repay”.
The number of people in a household is higher among students than in the general population, so while most students will receive a smaller percentage of the £200 credit, they will “repay larger sums once they have obtained their degree – and are likely to live with fewer people to share the burden with.” Save The Student estimates that students in England will repay around £60million more than they save from the £200 credit.
Mia Grace, board member of tenants’ union ACORN, says “everyone, including students, has the fundamental right to safe, secure and affordable housing.” In the East Midlands, average rental prices have seen some of the biggest increases, with tenants paying 3.6% more now than a year earlier, while rents across the UK are rising at pace fastest in five years.
MK, a 20-year-old student in Brighton, says she ‘can’t keep up with the housing market anymore’. An economic migrant, MK – who requested anonymity to protect the identities of your housemates – says she is aware that “being able to move freely around the UK within Fortress Europe is a privilege, which accompanied by a safety net”. She fears that “being frugal can be isolating”, given that “most culturally acceptable ways to socialize in this country involve drinking and spending money”.
And despite living in a house with ‘constant maintenance issues’, MK has faced a £110PCM rent increase in a house she describes as ‘breaking bit by bit’. With a housemate facing a £2,000 council tax bill (because he’s not a student), MK says that at the end of the day, ‘solidarity is what gets us through this’.
The cost-of-living crisis ultimately reinforces a crisis that students were already facing long before the existing hikes took effect: Maintenance loans were never large enough to cover living expenses. The growth of spaces like FinTok – where TikTokers and financial experts share tips and hacks on how to save money (even if they don’t always work), and other websites offering advice students on how to save money allude to the larger struggles existing within the student economy.
“It should be noted that the interest-free overdraft that accompanies most student bank accounts is one of the safest ways to borrow money,” says Allingham, “and should be one of the first ports of stopover, long before credit cards and private loans. .”
Clearly, individualizing a problem and relying on your own solutions to a cost of living crisis in the absence of state aid is not ideal. But given the outright lack of government and institutional support, it’s worth pointing out other ways to be frugal and, more importantly, to remember that all universities have student finance advisers and the ability to hardship funds and scholarships for the less fortunate. Grace, for her part, advocates union membership: “Living in unprecedented times requires unprecedented ways to build a more just society, and that’s what ACORN stands for.