Universities step in to cover student bills with one-off payments

Institutions having to make more direct interventions as cost-of-living crisis bites with little sign of help from Westminster

November 18, 2022
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UK universities have begun handing students one-off cash payments to get them through the winter as the cost-of-living crisis starts to bite with little sign of the Westminster government stepping up support.

The University of Manchester has announced that full-time students will receive £170 and part-time students £85, paid directly into their bank accounts as part of a £9 million package.

Earlier, Queen’s University Belfast committed to giving students similar one-off payments of at least £150, or £400 to those most in need.

The University of York has given about 2,000 student households £150 each to cover energy costs in a further sign that universities are having to make direct interventions to ensure that their students can afford their bills, amid fears that the financial situation will fuel a mental health crisis and increases in dropout rates.

“We do recognise this is not something that every institution is going to be able to afford to do,” said Simon Merrywest, director for the student experience at Manchester.

“We’re in a position where we can, but that comes with making choices. It is £9 million we have had to prioritise from other things. We would like to invest in our library facilities, which are not where they need to be, but this is now money we perhaps haven’t got to do that, for instance.”

Dr Merrywest said the university had debated long and hard about whether the payments were the right thing to do, including considering concerns that it would reinforce the idea that institutions were cash-rich and that, therefore, government-led interventions for students were not necessary.

But it was ultimately concluded that the urgency of the situation required an immediate response. “We were seeing the evidence: huge number of students saying the crisis was a very real issue that was starting to impact on their studies. This has to go hand in hand with the lobbying we are doing, but lobbying doesn’t produce quick results – and we needed to do something now,” he said.

Sam Bronheim, the union affairs officer at the University of Manchester Students’ Union, who – as part of an eight-strong executive team – initially suggested the payments and collaborated with the institution to make them happen, said a recent survey of 5,000 students had highlighted a level of “desperation” among the student body.

She said having a “baseline amount that went to all students” was felt to be “the most fair and least complicated way of doing it”.

“We thought we need to get everyone covered, get everyone supported, and then for those who really need more support, figure that out down the line,” she said.

Dr Merrywest said the university had already committed to providing further help to a more select group of students in February but explained that it was “not tenable” to continue making such interventions.

He said he remained “optimistic” that by later in the academic year, central or local government will have introduced their own measures of support, relieving pressure on universities.

Laura Brown, co-head of editorial at the student finance website Save the Student, said one-off cash payments were “a good place to start” and encouraged more universities to do something similar.

But citing their research showing that student loans fell short of covering average living costs by £439 every month, she said that while a “couple of hundred pounds will help, it’s unlikely to go far enough to help students through the cost-of-living crisis”.

Unless the government steps up its support, universities may well find themselves having to consider making additional cash payments again later in the academic year, she warned.

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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