Are universities sleepwalking into the cost of living crisis?

Are universities taking the coming cost of living crisis seriously enough? Meg Price and Jess Lister call for more than the usual pass the policy parcel

Meg Price is a Policy Manager in the Education Practice at Public First


Jess Lister is a Policy Manager in the Education Practice at Public First

It’s July and we’re hearing from university colleagues that, in one particularly desperate case, students have taken to sleeping in the 24 hour library – because it’s warm and there’s access to subsidised food downstairs.

So we find ourselves asking – what’s the situation going to be in 5 months’ time when the temperature is 2 degrees rather than 20?

And as universities across the country gear up to stock on campus food banks we can’t help but ask – why aren’t we talking more about the impact the cost of living crisis is having on students?

Ask me no questions and I’ll sell you no fudge

We’ve looked for any mention of the issue on the websites of the main university missions groups – and came up empty handed.

We know it’s not the case that universities aren’t aware of the cost of living shock that’s going to hit students in the Autumn. In our own polling at Public First, cost of living is consistently the top most important issue people feel is facing the country; most recently, 79% of respondents put it as their number one.

And a recent survey by the National Union of Students found that almost a third of those surveyed in June 2022 were left with just £50 a month to live off after paying rent and bills.

So we don’t need to spend too much time spelling out that, as inflation continues to rise, so does the cost of everyday purchases such as food, travel to campus and energy bills.

The IfS has already set out how students from the poorest families will be an additional £1,200 out of pocket in the next academic year according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies – that’s around £100 per month. This is against a backdrop of students sharing that they felt they needed an extra £329 a month to be confident they were able to complete their degree.

Maintenance loans will only increase 2.3% from September – while inflation sits at an uncomfortable 9.4%.

Pass the parcel

Our concern is that the sector response to date has focussed on having conversations with the government about whose responsibility this will be in the Autumn. What students need is for us to all agree quickly on the scale of the challenge and the best mechanisms for providing students with the support they will need.

Our sector prides itself on its world leading problem solving capability and its institutional autonomy, and this is the time to make use of both – ideally before students return to campus in October, into HMO housing with an E-rated energy efficiency and a boiler that only turns “on” or “off” – (if your landlord hasn’t locked it in a box that is.)

We would propose the following:

  1. Universities should set up a dedicated webpage signposting support for cost of living. This could include easy to access information about available hardship funding, signposting to external support, and a list of all the things universities are committing to doing on campus to reduce students costs – we’d point towards Jim’s list of ideas as a starter for ten.
  2. That there is a more vocal sector position and leadership articulating why students are being let down by the government’s current relief, and what more could be done – that goes significantly beyond asking for additional government funding for student hardship.
  3. That the sector is clear and up upfront with students about the realities of the upcoming year. Whilst Covid-19 took the sector, and the country, by surprise – the same cannot be said for the ongoing cost of living crisis. Having clear, empathetic communication with students as well as accessible support mechanisms – as proven by the pandemic – is essential to support the university community through challenging times.

The scale of the challenge is, in our view, not yet met by the scale of the response. Universities need to make sure they’re not sleepwalking into a year of disarray – but rather show leadership on the issue and take control throughout the summer as a matter of urgency.

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