How SUs can talk to students about cost of living

Jo Walters is an independent communications consultant

The cost of living crisis is rapidly rising to the top of SU officer political priorities.

Discussions around what unions can do to mitigate the impact on students typically focus on broad plans like “lobby X for Y“ or very specific actions like “freeze the price of Z in the union bar”.

But what else should be called for, how should SUs go about it and crucially how should all that be communicated?

A bunch of SU comms and marketing professionals got together over the summer to work out how we could use our expertise specifically – and came up with some really practical actions, as well as some broader principles and issues to be aware of.

The context

We first looked at research carried out by NUS which showed that students were most likely to cut back on socialising to save money. With a mental health and loneliness crisis already underway, more students staying at home alone in cold, poor quality and high priced accommodation (that might not even be in the same city) definitely isn’t going to help.

Their data also shows that only 9 percent of those surveyed had sought support from their institution’s hardship fund. Given this is often the first thing we suggest when talking about financial hardship, we talked about whether stigma, lack of awareness or misunderstandings about the criteria and application process might be preventing students from using this. We can change the way we talk about financial hardship and seeking support to help tackle some of these gaps.

With 71 percent of respondents saying they strongly agreed that there is a cost of living crisis, it is vital that we act on this and, importantly for comms people, students know that we are acting on it – they have to know that we’re on their side.

Elsewhere, in Public First’s poll of 2011 people, “university students” were least likely to be selected as one of the groups that would struggle most as the cost of living increases (25 percent of respondents choose them as one of their responses).

If this represents views across society then we need to be ready for backlashes to requests for support and campaigning asks if they’re seen to be taking support from “more deserving” groups.

Big themes

We discussed topics, trends and predictions that we should be mindful of when planning and delivering comms projects including:

  • There’s likely more/worse to come for students. Many will have been sheltered from some rent and bill increases by signing contracts for the current academic year some time ago. Tenancy agreements for 2023/24 which will be advertised soon are likely to include some eye-watering costs, and questionable contract terms.
  • There’s likely more/worse to come for unions. How will our organisations be responding to funding cuts over the next few years? How will we be consulting on and communicating about the impact of those with our members and staff?
  • Many students are likely to be put off accessing support by stigma and lack of understanding. How can we destigmatise hardship and financial support through our language and imagery?
  • How will this affect different groups of students? Who might fall between the gaps and how can we reach them, e.g. for some students this might be “just more debt” and they might not feel much of an impact whereas others might be much more averse to taking on more financial risk. Some may have been managing with support from family but might be facing financial difficulties for the first time. Others might not feel they qualify as “struggling” even though they are (and therefore might not even pursue support they’re entitled to).
  • Some students will be cash *and* time poor. Sticking on a load of free events or offering great free development opportunities won’t help students if they have to work or take on additional responsibilities and risks leaving them further behind. Equally if students have heavy workloads on their course they may not have time to take advantage of these opportunities or take on paid work
  • We need to be careful with how we promote things that cost money – buying a freshers wristband or going on a ski trip can’t be sold as the only way to make friends. This is not the year to lean on FOMO as a sales tactic.
  • What can we learn from other movements and sectors? Look for inspiration in other places, e.g. mutual aid groups that sprang up during lockdown, poverty-fighting and bill non-payment campaigns, Martin Lewis’s mix of politics and practical tips.
  • Anticipate greater scrutiny of (and potential backlash to) union activities and decisions, e.g. profit margins, pricing and spending. We need to ensure that our organisations are making the right decisions and that officers and/or trustees are happy to stand by their decisions. We need to remember that we *want* scrutiny and accountability, not just when it suits us.
  • Be wary of “optics”. If you’re talking about food banks and the next day you have a big staff social with a free lunch people might ask questions. Again, it may be the right thing to do but you should anticipate how people could respond.
  • Pre-empt narratives about students asking for or taking support they don’t deserve or that should go to other people. It’s possible that we’ll see stories saying that students shouldn’t be using resources like food banks or financial aid as some students spend money going out. Who ‘deserves’ support is already a controversial topic so pour some ‘culture wars’ rubbish on top of it and it could get nasty.

Small but mighty

As well as the bigger opportunities and risks we also identified a load of small, cheap and/or quick things we could do in our communications and marketing:

  • TALK ABOUT THE COST OF LIVING CRISIS. If you’re just talking about freshers wristbands and your big range of societies then you are going to look seriously out of touch. Students need to know that this is something you’re working on and that you’re on their side.
  • Include information about support available in training of freshers reps/committee members/shop staff/anyone else that will be talking to students. The more people that can spread accurate information and direct people to support the better
  • Ask your university what they’re doing on the issue. Get a working group going. Collaborate on the comms side of it, make sure they’re not just offering advice on cutting spending.
  • Redesign menus with a spotlight on cheap eats
  • Highlight free events and activities in listings
  • Explain the hardship fund application process/criteria. Some people are put off if they think it will be onerous or invasive (or disqualify them because they spent money recently)
  • Include discounts, money-saving tips (and your campaigning work on the cost of living) on social media regularly, in every email newsletter etc. You can source these yourself or pull in details from reliable sources like MoneySavingExpert.
  • Include campaigning calls to action in your signposting content

As well as telling students about:

  • Part-time job vacancies (at the union and beyond)
  • Their employment rights (so they’re employed and paid fairly)
  • Their housing rights (if landlords are hiking rents, cost-cutting on repairs, or trying to change contract terms)
  • Student discount schemes
  • Your advice services
  • Places on campus and in the city where they can go to spend time in the warm with wifi without having to pay (to study and also to hang out) including their opening times. Some councils may be operating warm banks but public libraries are usually a good place to study.
  • How to contact organisations if they’re struggling to pay, e.g. their energy provider, their landlord, the university
  • The work you’re doing to lobby your institutions/the council/government/whoever

Over to you

I thoroughly recommend doing this within your unions as well as across SUs within specialisms (get in touch, I’m happy to facilitate!). Now more than ever, the power of our collective experience and expertise is needed to get us through this together.

For access to view or add to the full list of suggestions just email jo@25dots.co.uk

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