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Students cutting back on food and essentials need more support as the cost of living bites

(Alamy)

4 min read

Has this country now officially given up on its poorest young people? You could be forgiven for assuming so.

If it wasn’t a dire enough decision by this government to drastically underfund catch-up for the generation whose education was so brutalised by the shuttering of schools during Covid, we now see that same government entirely failing to support the worst-off students through a raging cost of living crisis.

Research published today by the Sutton Trust, which I founded and chair, makes unignorably clear the struggles now being faced, in particular, by students who have progressed to university from deprived and low-income homes. The findings, and their implications for the long term, should worry anyone with even a passing interest in social mobility in this country.

A quarter of students say the cost of living crisis threatens them with the prospect of dropping out and not getting a degree at all

A third of students from low-income families say they have skipped meals to save on food costs. Nearly two-thirds of all students are spending less on food and essentials as a result of rising prices. Some 43 per cent are stinting on electricity or gas in their accommodation. Most depressing and alarming of all, almost a quarter of students say the cost of living crisis threatens them with the prospect of dropping out and not getting a degree at all.

These survey results arrive directly in the wake of the government’s frankly inexplicable decision that maintenance loans for undergrads – the money relied upon for rent, food and bills by students who can’t call on the Bank of Mum and Dad – will only be allowed to rise by 2.8 per cent. That’s against a backdrop, you won’t need reminding, in which inflation is running away into double figures. Once again, the wealthier and better supported are cushioned from the impact, and the endemic unfairness increases.

Of course, the situation these young people now face has been exacerbated by the woeful decision, in 2015, of the then chancellor George Osborne to abolish maintenance grants for the most underprivileged undergraduates. Osborne told the country at the time that we simply couldn't afford the £1.6bn per year that it was costing. From the other side of furlough and the energy bills bail-out, this looks like small fry in 2023.

Now is the time to reverse Osborne’s regrettable and regressive decision. With the poorest kids having been worst hit by the pandemic, surely it is only right that the country should support them through university as the cost of living bites deep. All students clearly need more money available to them, day to day. But it’s simply wrong on every level that while the poorest students do their best to get by on a pittance, they are also amassing huge debt that will burden them disproportionately in the future.

This isn’t just a knee-jerk reaction to recent events. For decades now it has been clear that the education system is not geared to support striving young people from poor homes. We must do more to nurture them. This isn’t just a moral argument: it’s a practical one for a country that so clearly needs, and so clearly lacks, a pipeline of low-income high-performing talent coming up through its education system.

If Britain really is to “build back better” after the pandemic and beyond the current economic downturn, we are going to need many more scientists and entrepreneurs – and currently we only seem to think we need the ones whose parents could afford houses in the right catchment area or eyewatering school fees.

Now is the time to recognise the need to help more students from a broader background to thrive at university. And the only sensible way to do so is by reintroducing maintenance grants.

 

Sir Peter Lampl OBE, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust.

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