We must not forget about the struggle of university students in the cost of living crisis
The recent government announcement of an additional £15m for universities to provide hardship funding for students might be worth less than £10 a year per student.
However it is an acknowledgement of the increasing financial difficulties faced by students, who are at risk of becoming one of the forgotten groups in this cost of living crisis.
Students may not top everyone’s list of those most in need of support, as poorer families struggle to feed themselves and pensioners switch off their heating, but many are in real trouble – unable to turn to parents whose own budgets have been hit hard or rely on hospitality and retail jobs in small businesses with their own problems.
Without proper maintenance support, student recruitment and retention will inevitably be affected
Rising energy and food costs have pushed many students to a tipping point, but they were already in a fragile position as the value of student support has fallen.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies reported recently that some of the poorest students will be up to £1,500 a year worse off because of the cuts to student support since 2020/21. The number of students using foodbanks doubled in 2022 and over 60 per cent are cutting back on essentials according to an NUS survey, which also indicated that one in three students is left with £50 or less each month after paying rent and bills.
A generation of students whose schooling was disrupted by the pandemic told NUS that this crisis is now affecting their health and wellbeing, with 92 per cent reporting an impact on their mental health, and 52 per cent considered ending their studies in 2022 (up 10 per cent from the previous year) as a result of money worries; according to the National Student Money Survey (NSMS). The impact will be felt even harder by Black and mature students.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Students has launched an inquiry into the impact of the cost of living crisis on students. Our aim is to hear from students, student unions and institutions on the impact financial pressures are having on their education and their lives, as well as the efficacy of the additional support provided by the sector and the government.
We’ll be looking at how maintenance support is accessed by students, with 42 per cent of students telling the NSMS that they weren’t aware of funding options and whether it sufficiently meets their needs. While universities have worked hard to help students with the immediate challenges through emergency support packages, it seems inevitable that our inquiry will raise wider issues about student financial support.
The 2012 student funding settlement has been steadily eroded. When the 2019 Augar Review recommended the reintroduction of maintenance grants to help students from poorer families, ministers missed that opportunity while embracing those recommendations which reduced costs to central government.
The recent commitment to uprate student loans by 2.8 per cent for 2023/2024, with inflation over 10 per cent, means that the value of maintenance loans is continuing to fall. At the same time, the fees freeze is making university funding increasingly untenable.
As a wider discussion is beginning about the sustainability of university funding, we must not overlook this. Without proper maintenance support, student recruitment and retention will inevitably be affected – and widening participation programmes will make little difference to those increasingly priced out of many university options.
Our inquiry will assess how far additional support with the immediate crisis is working in practice across a very diverse sector, considering both the initiative from government and institutional support. We also welcome views on the bigger problems of the current funding system.
Paul Blomfield, Labour MP for Sheffield Central and chair of the APPG for Students.
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