Mid-summer this year, I was sat in the garden listening to my eldest son and his friends discussing their thoughts about starting or returning to university this Autumn.
As someone who has been in the sector for over 20 years these are the conversations that interest and inspire me – what are they looking forward to, what they hope to achieve, what are they going to miss, what influenced their decision about where to apply – it’s fascinating.
But this year I was struck by the negativity of the conversation – they all said that while they were looking forward to their respective university experience, they were also dreading trying to make ends meet given the rise in cost of living.
It made me think about our students here at the University of Northampton. Were they feeling the same? Our student life data suggested they were.
60 per cent of students surveyed in 2020-2021 said they were most concerned with being able to pay for basic things that they need, and 51 per cent of students surveyed said that worrying about budgeting or having money for basic needs was having a significant impact on their personal wellbeing – and this was before the cost of living increase really started to bite.
Add this to the concerns of prospective students, 92 per cent of whom are concerned about the rising cost of living, leaving them feeling anxious or stressed – and questioning whether they can afford to go to university in the next couple of years, and you start to get the feeling that this is something we should taking very seriously. It is a crisis, and one that requires crisis response.
Inspired by Wonkhe’s 101 ways to get the cost of-living down for students article, we established a university-wide taskforce to consider the practical support that the university could offer to students and staff as they navigate the impact of the crisis on their lives.
The taskforce, comprising of colleagues from across the organisation, including SU and trade union representatives – and sponsored by the university leadership team – identified existing support mechanisms, and put out a call for ideas and suggestions as to how the university could enhance this support.
As a Changemaker institution our university community is no stranger to pulling together to provide support in the face of adversity or social crisis, but even so we were blown away by the offers of assistance, and sheer volume of ideas to limit the impact of the crisis on students and staff.
All ideas are welcome
Suggestions were broadly categorised as relating to academic costs, food and living support, on-campus facilities, financial education and support, health and wellbeing, housing support, international student support, jobs and financial support, social experience, sustainability and travel, with each theme including suggestions ranging from the very tactical (providing free breakfast cereal in our catering outlets), through to those that were more strategic (lobbying government for a tailored cost of living package for students).
These suggestions didn’t just focus on our internal university community. Recognising our role as an anchor institution there was very much a focus on the support that we can provide to the community of Northampton, and indeed the wider region, with partnerships then formed to input meaningfully into the area’s anti-poverty strategy – ensuring the specific needs of our students and staff were appropriately reflected in local policy.
And so, after reviewing each and every one of these suggestions, our action plan was formed. Each stream has a clear suite of deliverables, with appropriately linked KPI’s, designed to be delivered throughout the academic year – many were implemented immediately, especially where existing support was available but maybe not communicated or advertised effectively, and some will take slightly longer to develop, but one thing is sure – we are definitely responding to this crisis with the focus it warrants.
Crisis? This crisis
I should probably end by making clear that we of course do not have a never ending pot of cash to access to fund this project, or indeed the time required to administer it, but for us here at the University of Northampton it’s about getting our priorities in order.
As a Director of Estates, I know more than some the eye watering increases to utilities bills across the sector – and of course we are all aware of the impact of the tuition fee freeze and increasing inflation on university finances. But it is our duty to ensure the students and staff from whom we rely so heavily on are able to weather the cost-of-living storm over the next few months and beyond.
The rising cost of living is a crisis, and just as the sector responded during the pandemic, it must again respond swiftly, empathetically and with clear policies that provide support to our communities in need.