Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Last summer, when we originally crowdsourced and published 101 ways to get the cost of living down for students, it rapidly became one of the most read articles on the site of all time.

That was heartening – and optimistically overestimating our influence, I assumed that universities would instigate working groups, tsars and taskforces to work on both short-term and long solutions to what is obviously going to be a long and hard period of student poverty.

There are a handful that have done that – extending their efforts beyond the fixes announced last autumn into impressive programmes of work aimed at reducing participation costs and monitoring and analysing the differential impacts of the crisis on different types of student.

But in a lot of cases those meetings have fallen out of the diary, the efficacy research is absent, and whatever quick fixes were put in place last time (often because everyone else had announced a quick fix and it started to look bad not to have one) have been reduced or reheated in one of the campus microwaves that were hastily installed.

As such much of the sector seems to have defaulted to that that thing it always does – pointing (reasonably) at governments for not doing enough while trumpeting moderate and sporadic catering discounts, inaccessible hardship funds and bursary packages that largely haven’t changed since they were drafted for the 2019 APP draft deadline.

The key “tell” has been asking SUs all summer who’s on their university’s working group on Cost of Living – only to find that there isn’t one. This happens a lot, of course. A disaster strikes, a fix is applied, and then we move onto the next crisis. And to be fair, they seem to appear more often these days.

But not only is the crisis still on, it’s getting worse. We are now well beyond the idea that HE is affordable on the money available from statutory sources. And while there’s a strong argument to be made about the role of governments in worsening the crisis, there’s still plenty that universities can do – especially on a whole provider basis (ie it’s everyone’s problem) – to play their part in alleviating some of its impacts.

Degrading results

Key to all of it is understanding how having no money impacts students’ ability to participate meaningfully in the experience they were sold and have enrolled into – and three new bits of research help a lot.

The National Student Money Survey from Save the Student isn’t the world’s most methodologically sound bit of polling we’ve come across – especially when, like the NatWest Student Living Index, it attempts to take its unweighted 1,786 respondent sample and make it mean something at regional level.

But if anything, methodological concerns highlight the need for the sector to collaborate on something better – or at least pressure the Department for Education (and the Welsh Government) to publish the Student Income and Expenditure survey results that it’s sat on (and cause the Scottish Government to commission its own).

It finds that the average student’s monthly living costs have increased by 17 per cent, up from £924 to £1,078. 18 per cent of students in the survey have used a food bank in the last academic year, 64 per cent said they often or sometimes skip meals to save money, and while the proportion of surveyed students who have received hardship funding from their university has nearly doubled, the average amount received per student has gone down – from £1,026 to £905.

But it’s the qual that really drives it home:

The stress of worrying about money makes me want to cry. How I passed my first year I don’t know but I [did] not have the energy to focus on doing financial plans and worked hard to get money as well as studying. I have the motivation in me but it is so hard and degrading going into university and constantly being told to get this book and these resources for my course and I’m worrying about [what] I’m going to eat tonight.

Vivi’s confessions

As such a new report from student finance and budgeting experts Blackbullion is arguably more helpful, insofar as it’s based on “confessions” that students have posted online about money worries and financial hardship.

The campaign it runs on instagram gives students the opportunity to see that they’re not alone if they’re struggling, discover places they can go for help and learn from both the not-so-good times and personal finance successes of their peers.

And this year’s responses paint both an important picture of how the crisis is impacting students’ ability to derive value from their experience, and identifies issues unlikely to be picked up by most surveys.

For example, a new trend was students selling or pawning high-value items just to cover the bare necessities:

Even though being “thrifty” is a skill to encourage in a sustainable economy, it is worrying if students are resorting to selling high-value items, like laptops and headsets, which could prove valuable to their studies, just to cover the basics, like food and bills.

That’s the sort of finding that might cause a university to redouble its efforts on lending schemes for key bits of tech.

Less unexpectedly is an intensification of a process where prices seem to be forcing many students into a choice between being frugal and missing out on different areas of student life. For some, this means missing social events that build belonging – for others it could mean struggling to pay for food.

That’s the sort of finding that might cause a university to work with its SU to not have to depend on sales from events wristbands to fund the course rep coordinator, or create facilities that allow food preparation as well as food reheating.

Multiple students reported feeling the squeeze of rising travel costs, and as well as avoiding Ubers to get home safely, they’re skipping paying bus fares or booking train tickets while living further away.

That’s the sort of finding that might cause a cost of living group to interrogate the journeys that students are making and identify ways to get the costs down by sharing costs or commissioning alternative solutions.

A rise in reporting being the victim of a scam might cause a whole provider approach to warning students about said scams. And a rise in commercial debt take up might cause a university to consider working with partners to offer or extend a lower cost way of borrowing the cash for the essentials. And so on.

Office of National Stories

Last year the Office for National Statistics (ONS) got involved too, publishing two lots of findings from its Student Cost of Living Insights Study (SCoLIS) in England. A run on from its Covid work with students in previous years, there were plenty of numbers on the behaviours, plans, opinions and wellbeing of higher education students in the context of the increases in cost-of-living – but not a lot on why, and what might be done.

Now helpfully it’s published the results of 25 semi-structured interviews with students in May on the impact of the increased cost of living in England – and the results are both stark and insightful – although none of it’s a surprise. (There’s also Quality and Methodology Information on the exercise on the ONS site)

I would have loved after this to go for [a] master’s, but I don’t think it will be possible. My career ambitions are something that looks completely impossible, and only exacerbated by the cost of living crisis.

ONS found students cutting down on food and other essentials, using savings or taking on debt. Some students had to work extra hours, sometimes in multiple jobs, or relied on support from family. Some were unable to afford course materials, affecting their ability to attend lectures or afford course materials. Some students studied online rather than attending lectures or seminars in person for at least part of the time – not because they wanted to, but to reduce transport and food costs – because they needed to.

Some days I really don’t eat at all. When it was really cold, instead of putting the heating on I just [went] to the library…that I knew was hot, just to stay there.

Some moved to cheaper accommodation further from campus to save money, increasing their travel costs. Many reported that they had cut back on parts of their course that involved additional costs or had found ways to manage without some resources. Some felt that this was affecting their skills development – and inevitably the value they were getting from their course.

I feel like having those resources would have helped me write better essays, enriched my understanding of the materials I was studying. And that sometimes feels like a lost opportunity. Previously, when we’ve been going in five days a week, I’m making leaps and bounds with software because I can speak to my peers and I can get advice and support from them, whereas that’s completely gone.

It also affected their health and well-being. Some were unable to afford good food or had to cut back on other essentials, which affected their physical and mental health. Some students reported feeling stressed or anxious about their financial situation, hitting their ability to focus on studies.

I’ve noticed that my mum is working more hours than she previously would have done…that’s partially because of the cost of living and partially to make sure I can fall back on them if I need to. I hate it. I have an older brother and sister who went to university and neither of them needed help.

And naturally that all had a knock on on social lives and networking opportunities – students were unable to afford to attend course-related events or social activities, which affected their ability to meet new people and build relationships with peers and lecturers – the essential belonging thing.

When you’re in a university environment, so much of it is having a social experience with your peers. [That’s] something I’ve missed out on because I can’t afford it. It’s been a little bit isolating and depressing in the sense of [feeling] ostracised. I’m opting to not do things socially and that’s obviously having a knock-on effect on my mental health.

So much of the material puts governments firmly in the dock, insofar as it’s supposed to be their job to ensure students have the resources to benefit from what it is their university offers. But we are where we are – and it also points to things the sector could do to make at least a bit of a difference.

101 ways

One interesting bit of feedback that I’ve had from many on last year’s long listicle is the tendency for discussions on the issue to end up riding around on hobby horses. As I said at the time:

I’ll be the first to agree that some senior salaries are out of kilter, or that there’s too many shiny buildings or whatever. But this kind of political point-scoring won’t help students in the year ahead. It’s comforting blaming marketisation, or the government, or Brexit, or Covid or whatever, but it doesn’t pay the gas bill.

Folk have also argued that the problem is that resource – in the form of time or money – just hasn’t been made available. On that, I still think this:

Some things that we’ve become proud of might need to go. If a “Fibchester University 100” student engagement project costing £60k could be closed in favour of a food bank, let’s do it. If the biscuits in the meetings can be replaced with some free breakfasts for the poorest students, it’s time. If employing more students as baristas in the coffee bar or data processors in registry means compromising on service standards – so be it. Students need the money.

I’ve also been told that when it comes to those access or APP meetings that people have, there’s a regulation-mandfated tendency to be very wary about financial support:

From the perspective of widening access, it might be time to shift resource from outreach to financial support. Of course those with departments and teams and projects are going to find ways to demonstrate that the former “works”. And yes I know that OfS is demanding you look in the rear view mirror with a ruler. But is there anything worse than spending the money getting them in only to resolve to then not support them to get on?

And while I do think it’s necessary to reduce the number of visits we ask a student to make to a campus, I’m not convinced that doing so should be the centrepiece of any approach:

I’ve been suspicious all year of the suggestion that you make campuses more accessible by facilitating students not to come to them. But more than that, I’m struck by (former SU officer) Martin Lewis arguing that this winter, we may need “warm banks” (the equivalent of “food banks”) where people who can’t afford heating are invited to spend their days at no cost with heating.

Or, put another way:

In what world should 1,000 commuter students on the edge of your area all be trying to heat their otherwise empty family homes during the day this winter? And for students in HMOs, remember they’ll either be trying to afford the bills themselves, or will have a landlord controlling their “all inclusive” bills by turning down the temperature via an app sat in a Costa counting their pension pot. We ought to be bussing them in to sit somewhere communal and warm – not leaving them out on their own watching their breath as they type out an assignment in gloves.

Anyway, in an attempt at kicking the tyres on the conversation for this coming year, below is the 101 suggestions again. Some are easier than others – but if the central unifying objective for everyone in HE right now is to reduce the costs of participation in higher education, they ought to represent a set of ideas that trigger 101 more.

101 ideas for alleviating the impacts

  1. Everyone that runs a service on campus that charges students is mandated to have a range of options, one of which is a budget option (budget coffee, budget gym slots).
  2. Every academic that maintains a reading list is asked to cut some titles from that list and/or make clear that purchase of the whole list is unwise and unnecessary.
  3. Even better, ensure everything on any list is possible to access for online, in the library and/or for free.
  4. Every university commits to increasing the number of seats in areas where you can sit somewhere warm and hang out on campus by 20 percent by September.
  5. More SUs should buy the licence that allows you to show old films as long as not for profit/charge – cinema nights are communal, social, warm and not massively hard for socially awkward/anxious.
  6. Develop a proper, coordinated student jobs strategy. Nobody in any professional services should be able to advertise a job without soul searching over whether that job could, on balance, be done by a student – even with a compromise on quality.
  7. A revival of 1980s-style NUS Card student discount squads. 2 or 3 student staff are paid for the rest of the summer to scour the city for discounts and beg businesses to have them or make them deeper. No advertising sales for a handbook, just “please offer a discount”.
  8. Loads more rental of things. Get 20 students on a zoom call and ask them what they but that they would have preferred to rent. SU supported to facilitate rentals (v common in Scandinavia…)
  9. Let’s see some surfaced visibility on any cost centre that has charges to see the budgeted surplus. Governing bodies need to ask how important it is that that surplus is hit given the see-saw with the charges in the coming academic year.
  10. Design a student costs and income audit and require every student to complete it before enrolling.
  11. Tell students with railcards that visit London – they should get a plastic Oyster, they can load their 1/3 discount onto it by asking a person at any station to sort it for them.
  12. All the social norming that people that have been doing work on alcohol, EDI, consent etc – do some on costs. Let’s try to convince rich kids that the seminar group going to Pret for lunch is a nasty thing to do (harder if some bright spark installed a Pret on campus).
  13. Make very clear to international students what their employment rights are, and where they can go if they have concern, in a way that convinces them that by seeking help their visa won’t be at risk.
  14. Every international office to make clear to incoming international students that the amount the home office is saving you can live on is probably an inadequate figure.
  15. Every university and SU catering outlet has to join Too Good To Go, the app that lets customers rescue unsold food from shops and restaurants to save it from going to waste.
  16. UUK lobbies BEIS, the Levelling up department and energy industry bodies over incentives to put energy efficiency measures into student houses – pronto.
  17. Ban the use of admin and food & beverage temping agencies on campus. Use the 20 percent in VAT leakage to facilitate the employment of students in those jobs directly.
  18. Allocate space to a student repair shop. Recruit students who can repair things and collaborate with local traders who do so.
  19. Let students cook for each other on campus. Open up kitchens that allow it. Be determined to have health and safety support that facilitates rather than discourages it. Encourage societies to do it. Bake offs, cook offs, you name it. Nibbles day. Buffet week. Let them eat cake day. Muffin hour.
  20. Organise deliberately facilitated walking bus clubs with actual times and chat topics so students meet people too.
  21. Don’t require anything to be handed in on paper. Ever.
  22. Buy and rescue more laptops for loan.
  23. Never throw out a laptop – stick Chrome OS on it and give it to a student.
  24. Email recent graduates now asking for donations of course specific stuff – lab coats, Bunsen burners, etc etc.
  25. Hold a fortnightly car boot sale on campus (without the cars).
  26. Make it so that room booking requests get approved 50 percent faster if they include giving free food to students that come to an event.
  27. No more fines for anything. Disciplinary fines allow the rich to abuse people. We’ve seen decent legal advice suggesting halls behaviour fines are probably unlawful (tenant fees act) even if craftily derived from student disciplinary procedures. Ban them all.
  28. No more “optional” trips where you can pass the course without going but you feel terrible because everyone else bonded and had a lovely time.
  29. Facilitate some sessions where students get to know each other in classrooms. It’s cheaper than them having to do that in cafes, pubs or clubs – and more inclusive too.
  30. Pay teacher candidates (student teachers) for the labour they are doing in classrooms.
  31. Stop asking PhDs to pay their employer to be employed?
  32. Publicly pressure funding bodies to increase PhD student stipends and maintenance loans.
  33. See if it’s possible to provide basic breakfasts throughout the year – especially in winter.
  34. Seek and train volunteers to do heat-audits on houses and offer advice to residents and landlords on improvements (quick wins and long term). Invest in some IR/heat cameras to use.
  35. Work out how much it actually costs for a student to be a member of clubs and societies and think about how to show and reduce those, e.g. if it only costs £10 to join a club but you need equipment and travel to training and and and then it’s not £10 is it?
  36. Give every student a box of useful things – a cookbook, a notepad, a reusable bottle and mug, etc
  37. Work with local councils to highlight free places/things nearby, e.g. non-university libraries as warm places to study, with good WIFI plus eBook rentals and other bits.
  38. Use university/union minibuses to help people move house. Make them available for students to book for group trips (taking steps to address driver eligibility).
  39. Make university rooms available for storage over the summer instead of pricy commercial storage.
  40. Lobby the government to remove the self-employment restrictions on international students so they can take freelance work. This also makes it much less complicated for entrepreneurship units to deal with international students with great business ideas.
  41. Affordable laundrette. Washing lines for students.
  42. More social spaces. Daughter had kitchen/diner for her flat but no central space to socialise with other flats in the block. Took longer to make friends than necessary and involved costs of going to clubs etc to meet people.
  43. Get a plug in induction hob, pressure cooker and a microwave oven to do all cooking.
  44. Buy food in bulk if possible.
  45. Provide students facilities to brew their own beer and wine.
  46. Make sanitary products free. It makes so much difference. The costs of sanitary products are so high and it cuts deep into our pockets every month. Most organisations do that, universities should start doing it too.
  47. Facilitate book swaps/sales (inc non-academic).
  48. There should be somewhere for students to get hot water and microwaves so they can heat their own food.
  49. Allow students to use sports facilities to shower and wash for free.
  50. Repair and rent out bicycles.
  51. Price match the campus shop on campus to the cheapest local on 100 key items.
  52. Students chuck in as little as 20p and then all cook/serve a meal en mass together challenge. Bulk buying veg/vegan meals is very cheap, cooking together is fun/social/warm and means they won’t be using energy at home.
  53. More support for med/health/social work students travelling to placements and waiting months for NHS reimbursements- car share/rental (for more rural locations)? Paid for bus/train passes? Interest free loans for travel costs?
  54. Offer support for student sex workers and those in the gig economy – they need the work and the support, not moralising.
  55. “Best before” date food sales at campus food outlets at knockdown prices (you were going to throw that salad tub out anyway).
  56. Set and enforce a maximum price for hot meals three times a day on campus.
  57. Make clear that running out of money counts as an extenuating circumstance this year. It’s not like you were expecting that gas bill, was it?
  58. Universities could build relationships with residents neighbouring their university accommodation. Eg install electric car chargers on campus that residents can also use and pay for with profit subsidising student travel?
  59. Make it someone’s job to work out how many bed spaces are available in your area in different price bands. Use that to determine your clearing cap.
  60. If that sounds hard or “unrealistic”, consider what it’ll feel like when a student from a low income background is recruited to your university to live away from home during clearing, and try harder.
  61. Unis could negotiate with their energy providers to create a uni energy scheme. Bigger volume, guaranteed/simple payments by uni – lots in it for energy suppliers.
  62. Students in private accommodation apply to uni/provide proof of address to transfer over to uni energy scheme as their provider. Supplier charges uni bulk lower rates for energy – uni pays – then students pay the uni.
  63. Cheap day rate for halls so students can use halls for short periods when needed.
  64. Use pay it forward at campus cafes and bookshops.
  65. Hand over empty retail spaces for student run thrift / swap shop.
  66. Carry out a course materials audit and either rewrite programmes to reduce them or organise bulk-buying to get the costs down.
  67. Setting up credit unions to provide no-questions-asked small sums to tide students over and lessen the risk of getting dodgy loans and incurring extra costs like overdraft fees.
  68. Do deals with arts and tourism bodies in the area for free or discounted tickets for students.
  69. Provide a guarantor service for international students.
  70. Train student staff to offer a souped up housing advocacy service to enable students to get cold homes fixed, damp eradicated and help get deposits back.
  71. Something akin to community recycle Facebook pages, provide free transportation of bulky items. Living in a university town, there are complaints about stuff in the street just left at end of year.
  72. Being honest about what is essential for studies – book, equipment etc and other resources.
  73. There has to be somewhere on campus every day where you can get free coffee served by student volunteers.
  74. Install solar panels on all university buildings and student accomodation to reduce energy bills. Demand private landlords do the same or cap rent if they want to advertise their properties through university channels.
  75. Introduce academic credit where every student has to serve other students via a project, service or volunteer opportunity.
  76. Heavily subsidised childcare / vouchers
  77. Free printer credits as standard.
  78. Review hardship fund policies to ensure disadvantaged groups are not penalised for just existing (disabled students often hit with the “unnecessary” expenditure stuff).
  79. Make accessing discretionary funds less intrusive and based on circumstances, rather than full scrutiny of bank statements etc would be welcome. Fine for a kid, but matures have multiple accounts, different priorities etc.
  80. Commuter kitchens.
  81. Free toast.
  82. Low cost/free eye testing, dentists.
  83. No TV licence fee for students – most won’t need one or can use parents’ licence as long as using a mobile (not plugged in) device. Many don’t know this.
  84. Some sort of free/pay-what-you-can kitchen would be good. Serves lunch and dinner, only one thing on the menu each day, very basic, healthy, and allergen free meals: lentils/rice with vegetables sort of thing
  85. Grocery co-operatives. Pay a small fee, get a weekly big shop. E.g. pay £10 a week, get £25 worth of food (the rest is subsidised).
  86. Student allotments.
  87. There are trainee counsellor/psychotherapists who require practice hours in order to qualify. They are already far along their studies by the time they see face to face clients. Set up a service for free counselling to take care of the students’ mental health.
  88. Make all course readings OERs and/or make sure required readings are available at library/online. Make use of fair use/fair dealing if a chapter of a book is absolutely necessary to use in a course. Work with your copyright officer on campus if unsure.
  89. Ring-fence a portion of commercial income specifically for co-op initiatives / social entrepreneurship among students and/or for grant-giving.
  90. Facilitate clubs/societies to run cheaper community focussed/pot luck events in unused warm spaces in the evenings.
  91. Get every student signed up to the NHS Low Income Scheme and any other benefit they could be entitled to from the government or institution (e.g., DSA, PIP/ADP, Universal Credit).
  92. Tell applicants now if they’re about to be able to access MS Office for free.
  93. Kill off monopolies on campus. Where there are, take action to pass on more of the commission. If you would uncomfortable revealing how much of the profit you’re raking in via your laundrette supplier or graduation gowning firm, reduce that amount.
  94. Allow students to split costs across the year more in line with student finance/salary payments. So many things (gym memberships etc) have to be paid upfront in September.
  95. Many universities could be doing a lot more to negotiate favourable season ticket rates on bus services for their students which cover term time rather than paying full whack for adult annual passes or more expensive monthly passes.
  96. Cover more course materials costs and students have to buy them separately.
  97. Build “how expensive was taking part in this module” into end-of-module review processes. Take action off the back of feedback.
  98. Provide informal social opportunities (with takeaway refreshments) outside of the classroom, as a free alternative to those Pret after-seminar catch ups.
  99. Lobby for an uplift to the 28p per mile students are able to claim for travel to NHS placements (why is this different to the 45p per mile HMRC recommends?), and ensure the reimbursement times are reasonable. [this one actually happened!]
  100. Develop hardship funding for international students and make clear the circumstances under which it can be accessed.
  101. Scrap un-refundable master’s deposits. They’re cruel, and in a cost of living crisis, dangerous.

2 responses to “There’s still more that universities can do to get the cost of living down for students

  1. I think it’s unfair to blanket hardship funds as ‘inaccessible.’ As a hardship funds assessor we do everything we can to both promote our service and encourage students to apply, and given the number I assess I challenge this ‘inaccessible’ statement vehemently! This is surely giving out the message that there is no point applying to these funds as they are impossible to access and this is simply not true (at least here at Portsmouth)

  2. The suggestions are valid and interesting. I would like universities to effectively lobby governments so that international students are free to do any job they wish instead of the usual restrictions which only help to limit their entrepreneurial prowess. Sometimes it’s very difficult for students to get part time jobs as the employers only want full time workers. Hence it is vital to work with companies to ensure that a certain percentage of their jobs are mapped out for students so that they can be meaningfully engaged at work and build their networks.

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