Like a lot of first year sabbatical officers I have come into my role as President of Union Development at Hull University Students’ Union (HUSU) and been hit with the sledge hammer that is the cost of living crisis.
In my manifesto I ran on a promise to address accommodation issues and campaign on additional costs; little did I know that these two manifesto points would be wrapped up into a national cost of living campaign that may become the biggest student movement since the tuition fee rise, to £9000 per year, introduced by the coalition government.
I don’t have to assume (because I have been told) that across the country sabbatical officers are getting similar messages to me and the team at HUSU. Students asking for help and advice due to shortages of housing, especially for international students who have come to the UK with families. Rising utilities prices and worries about whether their budgets are going to stretch far enough to support themselves at university. As well as students asking how and where they can find jobs to supplement their student loans. One student even expressed to me that they were considering living out of a van and showering at the university gym because they cannot afford rent prices.
Personally suspect that many students, advice centres and hardship teams will not start to really see the effect of the cost of living crisis until early November. By then maintenance loans will be running thin and far fewer students will be able to afford to live.
While the cost of living crisis is affecting society as a whole and students are not the only people who are set to be hit hard, the importance of representing students’ needs during this time has become especially clear as the public perception shows that students are not at the top of anyone’s agenda but ours.
In light of this, one of the first things that I have done as president is reach out and contact colleagues from students’ unions across the north of England (and further afield) and establish a cost of living network.
The first two meetings of this network have been very productive. The President at Liverpool Hope Students’ Union has written an open letter to the Education Minister and many SUs from across the country have signed it. Additionally, I have written letters to the chairs of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) for Students and for Universities. These have now been signed by Presidents from 16 Students’ Unions and are due to be sent after the official mourning period for the Queen has elapsed.
Please see this letter below:
Dear Chair of the APPG,
We are writing to you in your capacity as the chair of the APPG for Universities.
As elected Sabbatical Officers we are getting in touch to urge you to support us in addressing the cost of living crisis that is facing our members and students across the country.
As you are aware the cost of living crisis is affecting people, families, and communities up and down the country. While public perception may see students as relatively sheltered from the current economic crisis, we across the higher education sector know this to be false. We have seen first-hand the impact that this crisis is having on students’ physical and mental wellbeing, as well as its effect on retainment and outcomes. Every sabbatical officer across the country will be able to tell different stories of students reaching the breaking point when it comes to finances.
Across the country students contribute massively to the economies and communities of our cities. However, right now, students are feeling disenfranchised and unable to participate in community life.
A recent report from Student Minds highlights that the rising cost of living is the number one factor affecting student mental health, while data highlights that 90% of students have reported the crisis having a detrimental effect on mental health. Up and down the country students are entering into credit card and payday loan debt as a means to continue.
One in three students are left with £50 or less each month after paying their rent and universities and Students’ Unions across the country are setting up food banks on campuses, with the number of students seeking support from food banks doubling from January to June this year. Students Unions are also encouraging students to use the heat and light on campus rather than heating their homes. All of this in one of the richest countries in the world that boasts some of the best Universities on earth.
We are urging the government to review the current system around student maintenance loans. The eligibility thresholds for maintenance loans have been frozen since 2008, meaning students from middle- and low-income families have been worse and worse off in real terms. These thresholds must increase in line with inflation if students are to survive and thrive while undertaking their degrees. In addition, the maintenance loan levels have increased far below inflation leading to what amounts to a maintenance loan package that in real terms is at a seven-year low; this must also be addressed.
I know you will be sympathetic towards the issues that students are facing, and I would ask that you allow student representatives, either us or others, to address the APPG for Universities in an attempt to have an influence on the decisions the government is making.
It is our hope that these APPGs invite student union representation to speak about the effects that the cost of living crisis is having on students across the country. While the Department of Education may or may not take notice, these all-party groups are a perfect opportunity to spread the message and highlight the needs of students.
What students need is simple. Maintenance loan entitlement thresholds must increase from where they have been frozen since 2008 and maintenance loans themselves must see a larger uplift than the government-imposed 2.3% which is set to be close to 10% below inflation as we head to the start of term.
At this time, I am calling for all sabbatical officers who haven’t already done so to also lend their signatures to these letters by completing this form.
It is my hope that together students’ unions can channel the voices of our students crying out for help and support from the government on a national level and bring about real reform that will make a real difference.