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Universities take steps to address cost of living as poll highlights impact on students

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Universities and colleges are taking steps to address the impact of inflation on their students as new polling for the Office for Students suggests that nearly one in five students say they are considering dropping out because of the rising cost of living.

The Office for Students (OfS) has today published an insight brief to better understand the impact increasing living costs are having on students. The brief discusses data and research from OfS roundtable events, a poll commissioned by the OfS, and other student surveys to explore how the cost of living is affecting students and how universities and colleges are mitigating its impact.

Among the steps being taken by universities and colleges to support students are:

  • Providing warm spaces on campuses, including libraries with free hot drinks available and adapted spaces for student parents and carers to bring their children with them
  • Changing the structure of learning, including recording lectures for students to access if they miss them due to part-time work, and reorganising timetables to condense the number of days spent on campus to reduce travel costs and so students can take on part-time work
  • Increasing financial assistance and widening the eligibility criteria, designing hardship funds that meet particular needs, such as travel and housing, and reducing graduation costs
  • Offering personal one-to-one academic support online, including in the evening, and signposting and offering emotional support.

The OfS commissioned Savanta to conduct an online student poll, which surveyed 4,021 students on the Youthsight panel between 23 January and 15 February 2023. The key findings included:

  • Almost one in five respondents have considered dropping out of university or college because of increases in the cost of living – 24 per cent of postgraduates and 14 per cent of undergraduates
  • 44 per cent have cut back on spending on food shopping over the last six months
  • 56 per cent have reduced what might be seen as non-essential spending (such as takeaways and nights out) over the last six months
  • Awareness of support provided by universities and colleges to alleviate cost of living pressures appears to be varied
  • Students from minority ethnic backgrounds were more likely to be unaware of the support that their university or college provided (28 per cent, compared with 17 per cent of white students).

These findings reflect those seen in research conducted by other organisations such as Universities UK, the Sutton Trust and the Office for National Statistics. This growing body of evidence highlights the importance of practical steps to support students being undertaken by universities and colleges. The OfS has distributed £261 million of government funding to help with hardship, including an extra £15 million specifically to address the impact of inflation.

The OfS held roundtable events in December 2022 and January 2023, which were informed by discussions with the OfS’s student panel. These events helped enhance research from the OfS poll, and provided insight from student representatives, staff from universities and colleges, representative bodies and mission groups. Attendees discussed the ways universities and colleges are responding to these issues, which include providing warm areas, subsidised travel and pastoral and emotional support to students.

John Blake, director for fair access and participation at the OfS, said:

‘We welcome efforts by many universities and colleges to address the impact of the cost of living on students, which includes financial and pastoral support for students during their studies. We have distributed £276 million in funding specifically for higher education providers to assist students most affected.

‘This poll shows how students are feeling the financial pinch. We conducted research into how rising living costs are specifically affecting them, and the support on offer. Findings from our poll supports data from the growing evidence base in the sector, which paints a worrying picture of the extent to which increasing food, travel and accommodation costs are leading to difficult decisions for many students.’

‘Disabled students, students from minority ethnic backgrounds and postgraduate students seem to be most affected by rising costs, but new challenges around commuting students and those from families experiencing economic precarity are also emerging. Universities and colleges need to ensure progress made towards equality of opportunity is not knocked off course, and that they continue to provide and make students aware of support. We will continue to work with the sector and share effective practice to ensure students are able to fulfil their potential.’

Thibau Grumett from the OfS student panel said:

‘Our panel meetings were a great opportunity to discuss and explore the various ways students are being affected by rising living costs. Travel, rent and food are already considerable parts of a student’s budget, and for many these are on the rise. We spoke about the range of support universities and colleges are putting in place to help, such as changing timetables to help reduce travel costs. However, we know that not every student is aware of or has access to support from their college or university. We look forward to continuing to work with the OfS and sector to work out how to best support students going through challenging times.’

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