The next phase of the cost of living crisis should give universities food for thought

In many universities decisions are being made about budgets for next year around now, ready for papers to go to June rounds of bodies that approve them.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

As such, I’ve been wondering about the extent to which universities are intending to continue cost of living measures that were put in place this year into next.

In some senses they are quite difficult to evaluate, because we lack the stability in the external environment or a control group to know if it was the free breakfast that kept them there or the lack of one that caused them to go.

That said, at least in England, any university that’s been hearing and heeding OfS’ John Blake’s messages on evaluation ought to have at least been trying.

The issue with an evaluation approach in a rapidly changing and volatile environment is the danger that it places a disproportionate focus on the rear view mirror, when it’s the impending dangers that are the most important to spot – and my punt here is that food is about to get even more important.

Today the Resolution Foundation has a terrific post up on the nature of this end of the crisis, which reminds us that the cost of living crisis is often thought of as a cost of energy crisis. That makes sense given the focus on energy bills and the vast support to pay or cap those bills.

But it masks the issue with food in a scenario where we’ve also seen some masking of the energy problem too.

On the latter, a large percentage of students in university halls, HMOs and PBSA properties were indeed shielded from increased energy bills this year because of government intervention, “all inclusive contracts” and having their rent set early.

But certainly in the private rented sector we’re hearing that either all-inclusive deals are dead, or in tight markets rents have rocketed to cover increased costs even though we might expect energy costs to fall. Rent looks like is back on the up in PBSA (both university run and private) too.

That is a set of issues that will likely both need universities to warn students about and make sensible provision for in financial support terms.

But zoom out and the reality is that energy costs and their relationship to rents are about to move out of focus – RF says that next week will see confirmation that energy prices will actually fall from July (the energy price cap is expected to be reduced from £2,500 to £2,063) reflecting the retreat of wholesale energy prices, and contributing to inflation falling back further through 2023.

That effectively means that the students denird support this year in the government rationale that they were not impacted by rising energy costs will actually gave the impacts of those costs next year when a different rationale to refuse support will be available.

One aside – I keep meeting people, many of whom really ought to know better, that confuse inflation rates falling with deflation. We are absolutely not going to see some return to where prices used to be overall, even if energy bills fall.

Anyway, the issue is that food prices on average have gone up by 25 per cent over the past year and a half – food price inflation actually 19 per cent in March, and factory gate prices – which tend to lead movements in consumer food prices – suggest that the level of food prices could easily continue rising into the summer.

As a result, food prices will be contributing much much more than energy to CPI inflation through the remainder of 2023.

It’s a miserable position for families, but matters even more to students for two reasons. The lower your income, the bigger the proportion of your basket of goods it makes up. And in the CPI basket of food making the numbers up, it’s staples and basics like eggs, cheese, milk and pasta – the sort of things on the meal cards that get published to students – that are going up even harder and faster (plus remember that when the price of some food products rises, consumers switch to others – not something that those on lower incomes can do, because they’re already on the lowest rungs on that ladder)

RF puts the problem that is coming like this:

Although the public have recognised the challenges of rising food prices, it’s far from clear that political and policy debates have caught up to the scale of what is going on. Maybe that’s not surprising: pain arriving via millions of weekly supermarket receipts is less visible to policy makers than that announced via a single Ofgem press release. But this needs to change and fast, because by this summer, food costs will have overtaken energy bills in the scale of the shock they are administering to family finances.

In some ways, then, that ought to cause there to be a focus on the initiatives that have reduced the cost of food for students on campus, or have developed, maintained and stocked food pantries, and put them front and centre as things to be kept on and developed into next year.

But I wonder whether there’s more that might be done on food. A number of universities have gone beyond foregoing some profit from their catering company and combined food events with social and belonging events. Some have worked up initiatives focussed on helping students to cook cheaply at home too. Some are working with local businesses to facilitate cheaper catering on campus for societies, or film screenings, or talks or other co/extracurricular events.

I know that more fridges, microwaves and food preparation spaces are being made available for students to eat their own food more cheaply on campus. Some are enabling student societies to use catering kitchens to cook for other students (with relevant health and safety considerations managed carefully). And I remain a huge fan of this “food safari” in Jonkoping in Sweden that the SU organises, which hopefully speaks for itself in terms of belonging and so on.

With a little imagination, student engagement and willing to overcome barriers, I expect that a proper student hunger/food strategy (distinct from a campus catering strategy) could bring massive benefits for students, staff and the community – boosting belonging and academic engagement in the process.

I’d add that anecdotally it remains the case that there seems to be concern about being seen to offer hardship funds to international students, while almost every report I get from SU with a food pantry tells me that it’s international students that are the dominant users of the facility. If nothing else, universities with January intakes of international PGTs would do well to ensure any food schemes don’t just close over the summer.

I’m also aware that there’s at least a couple of UK-based studies on into food insecurity and students. They’ll almost certainly suggest to us what they tend to suggest around the world – that student food insecurity is a thing, affects engagement, and impacts outcomes. If it’s not featured somehow on a revised and updated national Equality of Opportunity Risk Register next year, I’ll eat my hat.

More generally, as RF puts it – “the cost of living crisis isn’t ending, it’s just entering a new phase” – and while everyone realises that food prices are rising, it’s less clear that the scale [or distribution] of the increase has been fully understood in Westminster. I’d assume that to be true in universities too – with now a good time to close the understanding gap, so that sensible decisions can be made in time for September.

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