In the course of this academic year, a sizeable body of evidence has been produced on the impact of the cost of living crisis on student academic performance, mental health and financial insecurity.
It makes for difficult but important reading. Research from Russell Group SUs tells us that students are being left with an average of £50 per month after paying for essentials.
It also states that 54 per cent of students believe their academic work is suffering as a result of cost of living pressures, making clear the link between rising costs and student outcomes and experiences in higher education.
However, we are still working to understand the specifics of that link. One under-examined aspect, which warrants closer attention, is the increase in student loneliness and isolation that is connected with, and often even directly caused by financial struggles.
We know extracurricular activities, opportunities to socialise and avoid loneliness are a core part of what the Office for Students and its Equality of Opportunity Risk Register wants all students to have access to – Risk 7 focuses specifically on making sure all students have opportunities to receive personalised support from their institutions and engage with life beyond the classroom.
If students are struggling financially, it makes sense that engaging in extracurricular activities and socializing on campus would begin to look like a luxury few can afford. There are, however, hidden costs to foregoing these parts of the student experience.
Building connections with fellow students and having opportunities to try new things through clubs and societies are an integral part of what makes that experience so valuable. Free time to pursue hobbies and connect with peers plays an important part in the enjoyment and learning students get from their courses. It also provides an opportunity for fun, rest, and remembering how to close the laptop and switch off.
We know that the pandemic era eroded work-life balance and left many students feeling unable to escape the pressure to do more work in a bedroom that was also an office, lecture theatre, lab or dance studio. This has in turn created some very real mental health and wellbeing problems for many.
The isolation that students are experiencing as a result of rising costs, is something to be worried about. Many commentators including Student Minds (the charity dedicated to student mental health in the UK) have noted an increase in poor mental health in the student population resulting in part from increased anxiety about money.
Sitting in a cold bedroom poring over budgeting apps and lecture notes is not good for anyone’s wellbeing, and when the opportunity to distract yourself, move your body, be creative and let go comes at extra cost, that’s a hard circle to square.
At London Higher, which hosts a pan-London widening participation network, we have been grappling with this challenge from the vantage point of London students in particular. Many of them face a zero-sum choice between getting involved in their institution’s community life and managing costs.
The capital’s vibrant cultural landscape is a major draw for many students, and yet, engaging with that cultural offer is made especially difficult because of the distances many London commuter students have to travel to campus, robbing them of time they could otherwise have dedicated to extracurriculars (or indeed to supplementing their income through part-time work).
Although the situation in London is unique in certain regards, we can learn several important lessons that can be applied in the wider HE sector by looking at loneliness and isolation amongst students in the capital.
Firstly, we can look at what London-based providers are doing to combat isolation in addition to providing practical support for students’ essential costs. As just two examples, the University of Westminster has made membership of all clubs and societies free this year and UCL’s Student Union has been distributing funds from a dedicated pot to enable students to take advantage of extracurricular opportunities.
The fund was set up to enable students to pay membership fees for clubs and societies, join gyms and buy sports kit (promoting physical health with all its benefits for mental health and wellbeing) and take part in international trips or leadership opportunities benefiting their studies.
Joining up London
Secondly, we can consider more joined up ways of working at a city-wide level and whether these could be replicated elsewhere across the country. It is difficult and expensive to tackle issues of isolation and loneliness, particularly when funding for support with the cost of food, rent and bills is of paramount importance.
Where financially feasible, HEIs could consider taking steps like Westminster and UCL to make extracurriculars more affordable for students. Bringing multiple institutions together to provide free or affordable opportunities might prove more cost-effective for providers, as well as giving students the chance to meet more people from different universities.
AccessHE will be hosting a practice-sharing discussion for our members to discuss the mental health impact of the cost of living crisis on students specifically, and we look forward to working out how London as a city can respond to this issue together.
In preparation for the next academic year, with the cost of living likely to remain a significant issue for many students, we will be continuing this conversation with our members to make sure that all aspects of the student experience are receiving the attention they deserve.
For higher education providers in London, the density of higher education providers in the city can be an opportunity to think about the provision of extracurriculars more innovatively – if universities and SUs work together, can we make engaging with extracurricular opportunities easier and more affordable for everyone?