Students need practical help, not principles, in the cost-of-living crisis

Covid-19 illustrated how universities are not always good at taking responsibility for the practicalities of their policy statements, says Zahir Irani 

September 24, 2022
A food bank
Source: iStock

Students starting back at university this year are a seriously vulnerable group. Many will be young people, used to comfortable lifestyles, without experience of how to live cheaply or deal with big bills and debt. Now, they are suddenly faced with years of austerity – and a lot of cold and fretful months to come. Meanwhile, those already familiar with hardship will know that things are only going to get worse, if not impossible, during their studies, as the cost-of-living crisis bites ever deeper.

Covid-19 lockdowns were a recent example of how universities can be proactive when it comes to forming policies and general principles, but not always so good when it comes to taking responsibility for the practicalities. Too many students were left cooped up in their accommodation, marooned and confused. They were also unprepared and unsupported for the particular financial problems that lockdowns threw up.

This time, rather than issuing statements of support and communications that signpost students to the general support services on offer, universities urgently need to get involved directly and provide tangible support that can be seen as well as felt.

That means stepping up immediately with measures, large and small, that will make a real difference to students’ ability to transcend what will otherwise be a constrained and meagre existence: to have a decent experience of university life and a general sense of well-being. 

During colder weather, access to heated university buildings will be important and students should be encouraged to take advantage of those kinds of communal spaces during normal hours. Warm spaces need to be flagged and made visible, and university leaders may want to consider opening up and heating underused campus buildings or rooms to accommodate more students. They could also provide more seating in communal areas – and more comfortable seating that encourages students to stay for longer periods or to come into campus even when they don’t have a specific reason for doing so – be it going to a seminar, using the library or drinking coffee with their friends.

We also need to recognise the range of situations in which students live; postgraduate international students, for example, might sometimes want to bring their young family on to campus with them.

With energy costs affecting so many people, universities can play their part in reducing stigma attached to getting help. That includes looking again at the principle of a student “food bank” and considering how the idea could be rebranded as a more standard university offering, recognising that for many students in the new context it is likely to be a question of need rather than want.

Small costs all add up for students on limited budgets, and there are ways we can help without committing to substantial expenditure. For example, we can reduce the cost of hot meals on campus, either through subsidies or looking at offering less expensive meal options (making sure there’s a nutritious balance, as this might well be a student’s main meal of the day). Other options include installing airport-style charging points for iPads and smartphones and providing free hot water stations for drinks (so students can just bring in a tea bag) as an alternative to what have become the standard – but high-cost – barista-made drinks.

More students will be reliant on part-time work to get by. That demands extra flexibility on timetabling, encouraging more blocks of teaching and contact time so that work becomes more practical to manage. There may also be a case for expanding online offerings to support remote catch-ups – while keeping in mind that there always need to be a good balance with the campus-based student offer.

In all this, students’ unions have a major part to play through their facilities, their communication channels and their ability to gauge specific needs and the potential for rapid change.

Is it responsible – or safe – to assume that parents will always be willing to make up any shortfall in students’ budgets? In England, there has been the freeze since 2008 on the parental earnings threshold above which students’ can access higher maintenance loans. This amounts to what some, including the Institute for Fiscal Studies, have seen as a backdoor means of making parents pay more. That may have gone relatively unnoticed during the years of low inflation, but it will become much more of an issue now that parents on middle incomes are under increasing financial strain and with high inflation corroding the value of student loans while pushing up interest rates on their repayment. It is surely time for the government to revisit the whole model of funding for maintenance grants and do the right thing for our ambitious learners.

It’s not going to be long before media stories begin to appear on students choosing heating over food. As damaging as this will be to the sector, the bigger problem is going to come from a more widespread change in perception: the idea that university study is now unaffordable. With more students than ever coming from lower-income backgrounds, there are likely to be more drop-outs due to the cost of living and more elitism in terms of the backgrounds of students able to afford the more costly programmes and attend higher-ranked institutions.

Without concerted action now, this will fuel a creeping sense that university is a luxury option once more.

Zahir Irani is deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Bradford.

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