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Failure to increase students’ incomes in line with cost of living is scarring a generation

A new survey suggests that students' incomes cannot meet their basic needs for food, warmth, and study time. Lee Elliot Major outlines the consequences for social mobility
This article is more than 1 year old

Lee Elliot Major is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter

I never told my mum about the harsh realities of student life in the 1980s. She was so proud of me being the first person in our family to go to university.

Little did she know about my occasional hardships: staying warm under the duvet while revising for exams in that cold dilapidated house in Sheffield I called home for a year; scouring empty cupboards in the kitchen to find the last edible morsels; worrying that the bank manager might come calling to ask about my bank account dangerously in the red.

But I count myself as one of the lucky ones; indeed, in hindsight we were a lucky generation. As someone from a split family who had lived on my own before university, I received a full maintenance grant to cover my costs of living.

It’s hard to believe it now, but at the time no-one paid any tuition fees. During the holidays I secured a host of memorable jobs, from bin man to builder to petrol station attendant. My hard-earned extra cash got me through my degree – and PhD – and then MSc.

We like to think that society steadily improves from one generation to the next – what some call the arc of history. For most generations after the war that dream held true for many people in Britain. The expanded welfare state and expansion of universities created more middle-class jobs as well as more degree places. In this golden epoch of social mobility, children could look forward to higher average earnings compared with their parents. Many of us enjoyed upward social mobility.

But I’m afraid that this dream has all but died for generations growing up today. As we demonstrated in the book Social Mobility and Its Enemies, long term national trends reveal that more and more people are experiencing downward mobility. I can’t imagine that’s what former Prime Minister Tony Blair had in mind when he promised that Britain would become a more meritocratic and mobile society.

Too hungry and cold to study

This change in fortunes is demonstrated in shocking detail by the findings in this year’s Student Money & Wellbeing survey published today by blackbullion. The survey shows how the current cost of living crisis on campus is causing lifetime scarring for today’s crop of university students. What we have come to see as basic rights for students – adequate food, heating and time for study – have become privileges protected only for a wealthy few.

The survey found that 60 per cent of students reported they were too cold to study or concentrate, and that this has led to lower grades; 55 per cent said they have performed less well academically because they were too hungry; 60 per cent meanwhile reported doing less well in their studies because they had spent too many hours in part time jobs – with this impediment affecting 67 per cent of first in family students.

The statistics make for grim reading. One third (34 per cent) of the 1000 students surveyed across the UK in January 2023 either have, or have considered, going hungry or cutting down on their daily meals due to a lack of money; 14 per cent have or have considered using a food bank in the last year. Students estimate they need £548 extra a month to confidently feel they can complete their degree. Female students are the hardest hit financially. Many will not turn to their parents for money as they know they are also facing hard times. Almost one in ten (9 per cent) students have considered or have dropped out of university.

These dispatches from the campus front line indicate deteriorating academic achievement which in turn means poorer life prospects whether measured by future earnings or wider outcomes. They resonate with international evidence pointing to declining levels of absolute social mobility for young people.

Failing on the fundamentals

Quite rightly, we dedicate more efforts than ever before highlighting the impediments that block the way to other paths to opportunity: the worryingly few apprenticeships completed for example, or scandalously under-funded further education colleges. But we must also recognise that the royal academic route is not paved in gold as it once was.

This survey adds to mounting evidence suggesting we have crossed a line, broken a principle articulated by the Robbins and Dearing reviews that paved the way for the expansion of universities in previous decades: that all those with the potential to benefit from higher education should not be impeded by material deprivation, or where they happen to come from.

These are troubling findings if you believe that academic potential should be realised from wherever it surfaces. They also raise difficult questions about whether fee-paying students are being short-changed by a system failing to provide adequate support for basic living while at university. Failing to develop all our talents doesn’t bode well for us all, likely to mean we will suffer from weaker national economic growth in future decades.

We need to act to address these inequities. Governments and universities must up their game: offering more extensive hardship funds, providing subsidised food and energy where needed. New fundraising campaigns should be launched to seek extra scholarship funds from businesses, donors and alumni.

Alumni giving in the UK still lags embarrassingly behind countries such as the United States, where it is a given that graduates will do their bit for future cohorts. Older graduates like me were fortunate to study during better times. Our lives were transformed. But we will have all failed if the academic prospects of current generations are blighted by a lack of basic welfare.

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