How should universities act to alleviate the cost of living crisis?

We don’t tend to “do” single university case studies here on Wonkhe - we’re much more into general policy issues, and even when we do it’s usually about something that's gone wrong where there are hopefully lessons for everyone else.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It’s also worth saying that we know that Leeds Beckett is not the only university in the UK taking action over cost of living and its potential impact on students.

But its strategy, outlined in an email from its vice chancellor Peter Slee to staff earlier this week, is a vivid and impressive example of a university predicting and mitigating the impacts of the crisis, and a great example of partnership working between the university and its excellent students’ union, and so worth a look at in detail.

It covers three things – the resources available and how the university has budgeted for them, the steps being taken to immediately support students, and what staff across the university as a whole system response to help make a difference.

On the first issue, it’s not as if Beckett has any more money available than everyone else – within any budget year, Slee notes that flexibility for additional spending is limited, and points out that it is difficult…

…to anticipate how difficult the cost of living crisis may become, the extent of the impact on our students, or if external help from the government may be forthcoming.

But nevertheless acting now is “necessary to help build student confidence”. How? By setting aside the university’s full 1.5 per cent budgetary contingency to mitigate student hardship – in Beckett’s case, £3.4m.

Of course, there are risks in using the contingency – it could leave the university exposed to other threats it cannot yet foresee. But there’s a rationale in making the choice:

…because our loans are fixed; we have hedged the majority of our energy costs, reducing our short term exposure to changes in the energy market; and, we have made prudent assumptions about other commodity costs, we believe risks we can foresee have been addressed.

Slee makes clear that if things get worse then there are further steps that could be taken, but they would involve bigger and more complex decisions – like suspending “planned investment in the learning experience”, or going into deficit. For now the approach ensures the university remains “solvent and sustainable” and does not compromise support for staff.

There are then six specific areas of cost pressures where action is being taken to alleviate. First is rent, where the university has absorbed 80 per cent of the increase for students living in halls to get rent to a 2.4 per cent increase, despite its underlying lease arrangements driving a theoretical RPI increase of 12.3 percent. It feels like the right thing to do – although there will be some chewing nails at the compound impact of raising expectations like this when it comes to next year (and likely the year after that).

On food, an increase in catering subsidy will facilitate the provision of a hot meal every lunchtime for £2 (available to staff as well as students). On course costs, Deans have been asked to either engineer extra costs out, or the university will provide a subsidy so that they can be removed at source, or reduced – with a half a million budget to do so. On travel the university will lay on transport between campuses to students, and for graduation, gowns and tickets will be free.

You might wonder why the university hasn’t just headline-increased hardship funds. Interestingly, the stated aim here is to try to “mainstream” support to reduce the “very considerable emotional barriers students face when having to ask for help” – but nevertheless it has still doubled the fund from £1.5m to £3m per year.

There are then two areas in that “whole system” response thing that are interesting.

Picking up the OIA’s briefing note earlier this week, Slee considers the way in which the university might need to facilitate further flexibility for students trying to juggle commitments like part-time work, and sets out an ambition to create more opportunities for students to take on paid work with the university – which will also “boost their graduate skills and work readiness”.

Then finally, there is the way the cost of living crisis may impact on students’ ability to give of their best:

…it asks that we make more nuanced judgements (as we did in the pandemic) about rigid submission dates and times. But of course, the way we approach the months ahead is much more than this. It’s about showing compassion. A kind word, a thoughtful gesture, going the extra mile to help our students, as so many of you do every day, will make a huge difference. Feeling part of a caring community will help build resilience and commitment.”

Meanwhile the University of Manchester has been talking about its approach following discussions with the SU – it already includes including cheaper food options, free microwave and hot water facilities, free showers and free period products – but will shortly also include:

  • “cosy campus” spaces where students can relax and hang out with friends (equipped with free to use microwaves, hot water, and washing up facilities),
  • “bring and ping” spaces on campus where students can bring food from home
  • simplifying the university’s living cost support fund application process
  • a new emergency hardship support fund for students in immediate financial need (available within 24 hours)
  • a trained Money Advisor within the SU
  • more student jobs on campus, and
  • an additional contribution of funding to the SU Recreational Grant to enable more students to take part in social activities, regardless of their financial situation.

It’s a reminder that addressing cost of living pressures can’t just be a webpage that points at existing material or services. I see you.

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