Lily Margaroli is President at Exeter Students' Guild

The average respondent to a new survey of Russell Group students is living below the poverty line, and is just £2 per week away from the level of destitution in the UK.

1 in 4 are regularly going without food and other necessities because they cannot afford it, and students are reporting studying in freezing accommodation, unable to turn the heating on, and unable to afford travel to campus in search of warmer spaces.

Over half report that their academic performance has suffered, and 1 in 5 have considered dropping out because they cannot afford university.

All students are struggling

Our survey of over 8,800 university students is the largest study on financial pressures facing students to date.

With data collected between January and February this year, it shines a light on what students are experiencing right now.

It is clear that the current student experience goes far beyond the age-old trope of students having little money, living off beans on toast but still finding cash for club nights.

The impact is systemic and universal. 94 per cent are concerned about the current cost of living crisis and 94 per cent have seen their cost of living increase in the last 12 months.

But inevitably, not all students have been impacted equally.

Students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds are bearing the brunt of the crisis, with many struggling to make ends meet and facing financial pressure that impacts their academic performance.

Meanwhile, those who are financially privileged are able to navigate these challenges with relative ease, leaving a stark gap in outcomes and experiences between these two groups of students.

This gap has always been there, but the cost of living crisis has hammered a wedge into it.

Students who are estranged or care experienced are more likely to have considered dropping out (up at 37 per cent), as well as students with caring responsibilities (34 per cent) and disabled students (33 per cent).

Those same groups of students are also more likely to report regularly going without food.

4 in 5 students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds would not be able to cover the cost of an emergency, and only 35 per cent of students with caring responsibilities report having enough money to cover their basic cost of living.

As one student respondent put it, “the university system is created to benefit white middle class students from stable backgrounds”.

What is value for money?

Our research highlights the urgent need for the sector to grapple with a fundamental question – is university worth it during the cost of living crisis?

Only 39 per cent of students agreed that their degree is good value for money. This was not related to the quality of course or content taught – but reflective of concerns that financial insecurity will prevent them from achieving a good grade, and therefore securing a good graduate job.

With 72 per cent reporting that their mental health has suffered due to the crisis, students are anxious about graduate life, anxious about their grades and many report immense guilt and shame at the “burden” they are putting on family members who are helping to support them.

To put it bluntly, university is pretty miserable right now for many students. Having to pick between spending money on food or course related materials, being unable to afford to socialise or take part in extracurricular activities, studying in cold rooms with mould on the walls and working more than 30 hours per week alongside their studies to afford local rent prices.

And then at the end of all that, over 3 in 5 are not confident about finding work after graduation and 43 per cent regularly worry about their student loan repayments.

How did we get here?

Maintenance loans have risen at a rate far slower than inflation. Analysis shows that the DfE decision to uprate maintenance loans in England by just 2.8 per cent for 2023/24 means a full-time student living away from home outside London will receive £1,529 less than they would have if it had been increased by actual inflation since 2020/21 – and the shortfall will be almost £2,000 for those in London.

The parental (or household) threshold that allows students to gain the maximum financial support has frozen since 2008 – meaning that only students from a household income of £25,000 or less in 2008 received the maximum student loan, and that only students with a household income of £25,000 or less in 2023 receive the maximum student loan.

However, £25,000 in 2008 was worth a lot more than £25,000 in 2023 – so in real terms far fewer people get the help they need to access university.

In addition, government interventions to support the public throughout this crisis often haven’t reached students, with most being unable to access the government’s energy bills support scheme, and no separate scheme set up for them.

Issues predating the cost of living crisis have also been exacerbated – like the fact that full time students are not eligible for most income-related benefits. And of course, university hardship funds and the central government funding that supports them, which are meant to cover sudden and unexpected financial shortfalls, cannot solve this issue alone.

With a dwindling unit of resource and declining governmental funding, it is clear that universities are not in a position to make up the funding gap created by a broken student finance system.

One glimmer of hope (but blink and you will miss it) – earlier this year the government proudly announced a £15 million uplift in hardship funding for universities. About £1 million of that went to Russell Group institutions, working out at £1.50 per student.

Of course, not every student will need financial support. If we underestimate and suggest that 10 per cent do, then that is just over £15 per student. While this made for a nice headline figure, the level of support it provides falls woefully short in addressing the real crisis that students are facing.

Higher education purports to create the leaders of tomorrow. If we want those leaders to be diverse then we need to ensure all students can access and thrive in our higher education system. Without a higher education system that gives opportunity for students from all financial situations to succeed, we cannot expect a world that has leaders with a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds.

Taking action

To tackle this, last summer a group of passionate and genuinely concerned student leaders gathered in a room in central London. We discussed the worrying impact that the Cost of Living crisis was already having, and was going to have, on our student members.

With students seemingly forgotten in government’s interventions, absent in the political discussions and left vulnerable without targeted support, it was clear that this was going to be the key issue we must focus on in the coming year.

Coming together to represent our students at a national level, and knowing that this was not an issue we can solve alone, we became the Russell Group Students’ Unions.

After several days of deliberating, the group embarked on a months-long journey of collaborating through emails, WhatsApp, Teams calls, and Slack. This effort has culminated in the first phase of our work on the Cost of Living.

What sets our survey apart is the unprecedented number of responses it received – in fact, it is the largest dataset on the topic currently. This level of planning and engagement is crucial in putting students back on the political agenda, where they’ve been neglected for far too long.

No fun anymore

Across the UK, student leaders have been engaging in conversations with their institutions about how to best support students.

Where students’ unions and elected officers used to focus on how to make university as vibrant and fun as possible (and we still try), now the focused has shifted – food banks, how do more students access our hardship funding, how do we help students decide whether to take another shift to pay their bills or go to their seminar?

Many unions and institutions have succeeded in implementing initiatives such as increasing hardship funds, providing cheaper food on campus, providing more support with accommodation, and changing academic policy to support students who are impacted by the crisis.

However, localised initiatives cannot alone solve this issue. We need urgent support at a governmental level, and a joined-up approach across the sector regarding how we support our students financially to succeed.

Without urgent action, there is a very real risk that we will undo years of access and participation work, pricing out the vast majority of students except those from the most privileged backgrounds.

We also run the risk that prospective students will be watching how current students are being forgotten, left behind and left in increasingly vulnerable situations and decide that university is not for them.

There is also a risk of creating a class of graduates who have not been able to reach their full potential, as well as a group of individuals who had to drop out of university due to the financial pressures they faced.

Time for change

We are keen to engage with all stakeholders in a really meaningful way. This isn’t a students vs university problem, or a higher education vs government problem. Pitting groups against one another will not create the change that we want and need to see. From the start we’ve wanted this project to be more than a research report. Our research has given us a clear picture of the problems, and we’re gaining momentum.

We’re asking for serious steps to be taken and for us, as student representatives, to be involved. We may not be fiscal experts or ministers, but we know our students and we know what works on the ground.

The first step now should be reimagining how our student finance system works. We cannot continue to prevent students from achieving their best once at university and completely shut out many bright and talented students due to their financial background.

We need to ensure that students from all backgrounds have equal access to higher education and the support they need to succeed. Failure to do so risks creating an irreparable chasm of inequality in access and outcomes that will impact generations to come.

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