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New data reveals impact of the cost-of-living crisis on university students

People sat in lecture room

Universities across the UK are stepping up to provide extra support in the cost-of-living crisis. The need to do so was brought into sharp focus as students around the UK are struggling to cope with the cost-of-living according to a new survey investigating its impact on university students.

The survey which was released today and carried out by the Office of National Statistics found that half (49%) of students felt they had financial difficulties, with the crisis also having an adverse effect on their mental wellbeing, as 45% of students reported their mental health had worsened in the last few months since the start of the autumn term.

In total, 4000 students took part in the survey, which is one of the largest of its kind looking into how the crisis is affecting university students.

Universities UK (UUK) is seeking ways to support universities in doing all they can to alleviate pressures for students and staff. Led by Professor Karen Cox, Vice Chancellor and President of the University of Kent, with the support from UUK – which represents 140 universities – will be informed by shared practice, taking inspiration from the work done by member institutions.

Professor Karen Cox, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Kent said:  

“The cost-of-living crisis is impacting university communities across the country now more than ever. The situation is likely to get worse as the winter deepens and inflationary pressures continue to put a strain on their financial and mental wellbeing.

“Findings from this survey highlights just how difficult it is at the moment for students and the university community as a whole, and we must continue to work with government to respond to both current and emerging challenges facing students and staff in relation to the cost of living and recommend how these might be addressed at sector and institutional levels.”

Despite the findings from the survey, universities across the UK are working proactively to help reduce the financial and mental burden being caused by the crisis, with institutions offering a wave of comprehensive support.

From daily meal deals to increasing hardship funding, universities are working hard to tackle the issues affecting students by offering practical remedies. Many universities are working in lockstep with their student unions to get a better sense of how best to support their students.

The University of Essex, through the help of their student union, is a great example of an institution working to reduce the impact of the crisis on not just their students but also low wage staff. The university recently introduced all day meal deals where students and staff alike can enjoy a hot meal any day of the week for just £2.

Other initiatives include the trebling of the student hardship fund which as a response to the crisis went from £489,000 to £1.5 million. Like other institutions the university has also put a freeze on things such as accommodation costs and through their collaboration with the student union reduced the price of essential groceries, counteracting rising supermarket costs.

The university is also providing free food through their latest weekly initiative called, ‘Warm Welcome.’ The event enables students to come together in different warm spaces to share their experiences and tips to one another and reduce feelings of isolation as well as cut their energy bills.

Nashwa Alsakka, Student Union president at the University of Essex said:

“I think it’s been positive in the sense that a lot of students have been taking up the support that is available…. but it’s so tough that so many students need it and need to access it.

Speaking on the challenges for students taking the extra support, she added:

“Sometimes it feels almost like you’ve failed, if you’re asking for help and that’s how some people feel.  I think it’s about trying to break down those barriers and break down that stigma and reaching those people that might be sitting in their room, struggling in silence and not knowing where to go. That’s the sort of work that universities really need to be focusing on, ‘how can we reach those students that are on their own and really in a dire state’?”

Professor Madeline Eacott, Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Essex said:

“We got together with our students, our starting point for this work was listening to the students and what they wanted us to do. They were having difficulties and they came up with a number of things which they thought would really help them with everyday living costs. We wouldn’t dream of setting up something that will be student facing without consulting our student union and talking to our students about it. It’s just very much part of the DNA of Essex University.”

She added: “This is a national crisis and it’s not specific to students. We know that it’s affecting absolutely everybody.”

Like many other universities across the UK, Sheffield Hallam is also focussing their efforts on providing a more pragmatic approach to supporting students. The university is offering tangibles like free access to the top 100 e-books to enable students to save on textbook expenses and introducing daily deals in their canteen where the cost of food and drink will be £1 for any item all day. The university have also offered to cover costs of graduation gowns for the most hard-hit students and will be doubling the International Emergency Fund to support international students.

Sheffield Hallam University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Chris Husbands, said:

“We understand the cost-of-living crisis is affecting many of our students and we want to help mitigate the impact through our comprehensive support package. 

“As the University which has recruited more students from underrepresented backgrounds than any other in the UK, it is vital we do all we can to reduce the financial barriers for those students to succeed.”

Universities across the UK are responding to the cost-of-living crisis in the UK. The University of Aberdeen for example, has hosted various pop-up events to raise awareness of budgeting, money management, and distributed hundreds of “dinner on us” kits while reinforcing positive behaviours on living independently and managing budgets. The university also offer free breakfast options every Tuesday and Thursday and have extended opening hours of campus locations to ensure students have access to warm spaces during the winter. 

In Wales, Swansea University has increased the amount of funding available and reassessed their assessment criteria for hardship funds for 2022/23. The student union has been working with local government and Plaid Cymru to lobby for policy change to support students in rental properties. They are also hosting a series of free breakfasts on the university’s campuses.

Professor Steve West CBE, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of UWE Bristol, said: 

“It’s incredible to see the scope of support universities and student unions across the UK are offering students and low wage staff alike. As we enter winter it’s now more important than ever for our higher education institutions to continue providing help to students as they struggle with both the financial and mental burden caused by the cost-of-living crisis.

He added:

“As energy bills continue to soar and many students are struggling to keep up with their rent it’s imperative that they know their universities are listening and are working hard to provide them the practical support they so desperately need. Students risk becoming the forgotten group in the cost-of-living crisis. We need the government to work with us and provide targeted hardship funding to protect them now, before their living costs become so high that they are unable to keep studying. If this were to happen it is a tragic loss of talent to the country and a personal loss which crushes hope, opportunity, potential and social mobility. We cannot afford to let that happen.”

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