What should SUs do next on the cost of living crisis?

Livia Scott is Partnerships Coordinator at Wonkhe

Around this time last year, I penned a blog reminding the sector that the cost of living crisis has not gone away, and without sounding like a broken record, the same can be said a year on.

Last year’s blog aimed to set out a plan for incoming student officers on things they may want to focus efforts on, at least locally, to reduce the pressures of rising costs on students.

Recent polling from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), developed in collaboration with Loughborough University’s Centre for Research and Social Policy, suggests students outside of London living away from home need £18,632 a year to have an acceptable standard of living.

A minimum income standard

The report itself proposes a minimum income standard for students, essentially estimating what students need to “participate fully in the world around them.” This goes beyond rent, food and utilities to cover the costs associated with a full annual budget (covering everything from haircuts to laptops, phones, home decor, weekends away to takeaways).

According to the report’s calculations, outside of London, on average and excluding rent, students need £244 a week to have a minimum acceptable standard of living. Including rent, students need £366 a week. Yearly, this adds up to students needing £18,632 a year outside London and £21,774 a year in London to reach these minimum income standards.

Currently, for a student studying outside London, the maximum government maintenance support, provided to support students to meet their living costs, falls short by £8,405 for English students, £6,482 for Welsh students, £7,232 for Scottish students and £10,496 for Northern Irish students.

Now, the report does not suggest that all student costs should be covered by government maintenance support it does advocate an uplift in maintenance to be in line with inflation as under current maintenance arrangements, English students receiving the maximum level of maintenance would need to work nearly 19 hours a week at minimum wage to meet the proposed standard.

Yet despite a likely change in government coming soon, any uplift in maintenance loans or significant redesign of student financial support remains unlikely.

So what can SUs and universities do?

Across the pond, colleagues in institutions across the United States are miles ahead of us in the UK when it comes to talking openly about the realities of student poverty, their complex lives, and how, because of this, some may struggle to meet their basic needs with things like food and shelter, and how this may impact their ability to study and live well.

As the University of California, Berkley Basic Needs Centre outlines on its homepage, the purpose is to make UC Berkley “an equitable and inclusive campus where all students have access to the necessary support to thrive.”

Or as UC, Irvine puts it “[it] is really important for us to not have students have to retell their stories or explain their needs to strangers again and again, but to just be able to be supported in one space as fast and effectively as possible”.

The centres offer a range of services that vary from institution to institution. Many include food, hygiene, and toiletry banks, emergency housing, financial and housing advice, and other specialised services depending on the student body’s needs.

They are usually in one building or room on campus, often in a multiuse space like a student common room or space with communal activities like pool, ping pong, etc. This means that students are likely to enter the space for events or a space to relax between classes, regardless of whether they need to use the basic needs service or not.

The aim is to reduce the stigma around students receiving support while preventing students from having to “out” themselves as struggling.

Services are advertised publicly on university websites and the services are embedded into the fabric of support for students – simply google “student basic needs centres US” and you will be bombarded with results from all types of higher education institutions. Therefore, all staff, are aware of and can signpost the services available to students, the way we might do for mental health support in the UK.

There seems greater acceptance in the US that students may not only experience poverty, but that the institution plays a role in preventing this from happening. Too often I hear stories of officers being “told off” by their parent organisation for being too vocal about the challenges students are facing to make ends meet.

But if we want to see things change, universities across the UK must be braver in speaking openly about the issues their students may face if we stand any chance of improving students’ lives and outcomes.

But we can’t

Many institutions are concerned about the shrinking unit of resources and making difficult decisions about what the future of the university looks like – often meaning new or continuing projects like food pantries or cheap meals on campus are being sidelined.

It’s also easy to brush off the number of alumni donations the US basic needs centres get from alumni solely because of the prominent alumni-donor culture in America. While the culture of donating to your alma mata is certainly stronger in the US, there is no reason UK institutions cannot mimic these practices to fund their own basic needs centres. For instance, at Newcastle University Students’ Union, the student pantry in the SU was set up with funding from the university, but also staff and alumni donations following a surge in demand on its opening.


Another recurrent theme over the past eighteen months is the number of hours students are spending on part-time work increases, with various reports showing students working multiple jobs, often during unsociable hours.

It’s not a new phenomenon that students may struggle to balance part-time employment with study but rising living costs have brought this issue to the forefront of many policymakers’ concerns. There are two conversations at play here. One is to what extent can we expect students to be fully immersed in campus activities when they have less and less time to spare?

In this space, SUs may want to kick off conversations on what block teaching models could look like at their institution. A good place to start is thinking about whether there are courses with a high number of students engaging in more part time work than usual, for instance because of a larger number of students from a lower socioeconomic background or a postgraduate taught course that students may take alongside employment.

The summer is also the perfect time to reform timetabling to ensure classes are tactically timetabled, e.g. days clear of classes, classes less spread throughout the week as well as giving students access to timetables in sufficient time before the beginning of term so they can give current or future employers their availability.

For instance, when we visited Austria last month, it was common that when students choose their modules for upcoming semesters, the times and days of teaching for that pathway are readily available in module catalogues, meaning students can plan when they will not be able to work.

The other is what institutions can do to improve the quality of work opportunities available for students. Some of this is about ensuring students have access to jobs close to campus, as our Belong research pointed out many do not, to ensure precious time currently being spent on unreliable public transport is freed up. One way to do this, is to develop a fully fleshed-out student employment strategy.

Part of this should be focused on getting more students involved in the running of institutional services. It should also look at working cooperatively with local businesses and unions to promote good student employment practices and opportunities, encouraging employers to adopt the Good Student Employer Charter.

RISE-ing up

Again, to take inspiration from our friends across the pond, at Sykes Student Union in West Chester University, Pennsylvania, student employees aren’t just taken on to do a job, but their employment is considered a key part of the learning experience. It is co-curricular and is supported and evaluated as such.

The RISE project (Rams Integrating Skills and Education) provides learning outcomes and competencies, based on the skills surveyed graduate employers from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) valued, that students on the programme can self-assess and evaluate if they have met. The outcomes include things like communication, critical thinking, interpersonal skills, intercultural fluency, digital literacy and overally professionalism.

At West Chester, the program was used to engage off-campus (or commuting as we call it) students, who may struggle to get jobs closer to campus and had a lower retention rate than their on-campus counterparts.

Over in the UK, as students are increasingly time-conscious, if unions and institutions can provide better job opportunities for students not only in their quality, but in bringing students who may otherwise rarely come onto campus, there are deeper benefits to overal student satisfaction, engagement and retention benefits.

Rights, rights, rights

Generally speaking, the sector is well-versed and able in supporting students to be capable graduate workers, but what is less common and clearly needed is educating students on their rights as workers and giving them a space to turn if they feel those rights are not being met. This is particularly important for growing international student populations who are restricted on the number of hours they can work due to visa requirements, as well as students on paid placement opportunities who may struggle to know whether they are “employees” or “students” when it comes to their rights.

Over in Croatia, every time a business employs a student, a small amount of tax the business pays goes towards funding student activities. The country’s student standard also covers basic needs like food, accommodation, and work, meaning the idea of students having rights is much more cemented in the work of student unions.

Yet, anecdotally we know students, particularly international students, are often at greater risk of working in the “grey” economy or are more vulnerable to working in places with dubious workers’ rights provisions. International students often feel unable to raise these problems with their university for fear of an impact on their visa status.

Given students are more likely to work adhoc or more informal jobs like club promoting or in the nighttime economy, SUs should work with their institutions’ careers department to make it clearer what students rights actually are. For instance, what to look out for in an employment contract, or how they can be supported to leave potentially harmful situations.

Establishing a space these students feel comfortable coming to (like a basic needs centre perhaps!) to receive both emotional and financial support is vital for these students to succeed.

I wanna see you be brave

For the staff and officers reading things and feeling overwhelmed by how much stuff there is to do, know you are not alone. This stuff feels hard because it is hard. But there are answers out there.

Student unions at their best are agile and able to respond creatively to challenges they face. They are perfectly positioned to be the change that students need, it may just take a little bit of planning and, above all, bravery to get there.

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