We are helping students bear the cost of living – but government must, too

More hardship funding, bigger maintenance loans and restored grants would all complement universities’ efforts, says Sarah Stevens

November 27, 2022
An empty purse, illustrating student hardship
Source: iStock

Families and business across the UK are facing tough choices because of increases in the cost of living. We know students are facing exactly the same challenges, too. Data from the Office for National Statistics underline the scale of the issue, with more than nine in 10 higher education students reporting that their cost of living has increased compared with last year. Half of students surveyed feel they are experiencing financial difficulties.

The short-term priority is to keep people warm, dry and fed, but we should be clear that the cost of living has the potential to impact significantly on graduate outcomes and the way people experience higher education. Bluntly, if people are worried about keeping the lights on, then it is entirely understandable that this might affect their ability to focus on academic work.

More than three-quarters (77 per cent) of students told the ONS they are concerned that the rising cost of living might affect how well they do in their studies. Lectures and seminars have returned to face-to-face provision after the pandemic, which comes with increased transport costs; four in 10 students report that they are already studying more at home to save money.

Similarly, if you need to take on extra shifts to meet unexpected costs, this will affect your ability to take part in extracurricular activities that, in many cases, give students experience that helps them secure skilled work after graduation.

Universities recognise their responsibility to support students, and Russell Group institutions have moved quickly to increase the help that is available. Our members have committed tens of millions of pounds of additional hardship funding, bursaries and other financial assistance to help students through the cost-of-living crisis and ensure that they can continue in their courses and progress to high-quality jobs.

The University of Birmingham, for instance, has allocated more than £10 million to support students in the current academic year. Students in need of additional financial assistance can apply to the university’s Student Support Fund, as well as its students’ union’s hardship fund. And King’s College London has announced a £3 million cost-of-living package, including a one-off additional payment of £150 to all students in receipt of a King’s living bursary, representing £1 million of additional support, as well as £750,000 of additional hardship funding.

This isn’t only about undergraduates. All Russell Group universities have also confirmed that, for the minimum postgraduate research stipends that they directly fund, they will match UK Research and innovation’s 10 per cent uplift in 2022-23. This represents a further multimillion-pound commitment.

Many universities are keeping study and social spaces open longer to help students who are struggling to heat their homes to keep warm. They are also taking steps such as offering free hot showers, subsidised hot food and using bulk-buying powers to sell basic food staples at discounted prices.

In addition, Russell Group universities are reviewing and reducing course and service costs, such as textbooks, library fines and printing, sports activities and local transport. We know the rest of the sector is also looking at similar actions.

Ultimately, however, there are limits to the level of support that universities can provide under the current funding arrangements. Additional action from the government is needed urgently to ensure that as many students as possible get extra assistance.

A targeted package of support is particularly urgent because students have not been able to tap into the interventions the government has already made to help individuals on low wages or income-related benefits.

We are calling for a three-pronged approach from the government, to sit alongside the enhanced support that universities are providing for students.

First, ministers should offer hardship funding that will enable increased direct payments and grants to those students most in need.

Second, maintenance loans should be increased in line with inflation. This will put more money into students’ pockets quickly and ensure that payments keep pace with high inflation. Loans may have increased in cash terms this year, but their real-terms value has been eroded. Household income thresholds, which determine how much those eligible for loans will receive, should also be looked at again to prevent support declining for students from families whose income is falling in real terms.

Finally, the government should look again at reintroducing maintenance grants in England so that the most disadvantaged students don’t end up graduating with the highest level of debt.

This would help ensure that cost-of-living challenges don’t prevent young people who would benefit most from higher education from missing out on a high-quality university experience that sets them up for success.

Sarah Stevens is director of policy at the Russell Group.

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