They’re paying for student life on Klarna now

The humdrum normalisation of food banks on UK campuses, coupled with pockets of lingering senior resistance because of how they will "look" on an open day and so on, ought to cause us real shame as a country.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

But the news and political cycle’s fascination with novelty and disaster presents a danger if the reality gets “stuck” – and there’s a real danger in today’s new student cost of living figures that that’s where we are.

More than 9 in 10 students were either somewhat or very worried about the rising cost of living, the same as in early November 2022. Around half felt they had financial difficulties, with a third saying these were minor and 16 per cent saying they had major financial difficulties – this is also similar to students in early November 2022.

More than three-quarters of students were concerned that the rising cost of living may affect how well they do in their studies, and just over one-third of students reported they are now less likely to do further study after their course has completed. Same again, again.

This is the second batch of results from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Student Cost of Living Insights Study (SCoLIS) – from the same team that brought us the Student Covid-19 Insights Survey (SCIS) that was running during the pandemic.

We’re looking here at students studying in England – with fieldwork carried out this time from 30 January to 13 February 2023. 10 universities took part, and ONS says that it has weighted for age, sex and region of higher education provider. The sample includes international students.

One thing that has changed is that we are now up to 3 in 10 students that say they have taken on new debt, a significant increase from early November 2022 – with the vast majority reporting that they did so because their student loan was not enough to support their living costs. That won’t get any better next academic year.

This time we find out more about the nature of the extra debt being taken on. Of those doing this 14 per cent are in debt to a company (ie late payments), 4 in 10 have a new or bigger overdraft, 36 per cent are putting costs on a new credit card and 3 in 10 are using buy now, pay later services like Klarna. Don’t let anyone get away with making out that the only debt that matters is that benign one from the SLC.

Interestingly, almost 3 in 10 of those taking on extra debt say they’re doing so because employment opportunities weren’t good enough. There really is so much more that universities could be doing so generate and source part-time work for students.

We do get some characteristics insights this time round. 49 per cent of students in general say they have financial difficulties – that’s up at 55 per cent of Disabled students and 65 per cent of student carers. You’d want the government to do something about that – but it ignored the equality analysis over this September’s maintenance loan increase, so why would it take notice this time?

And there remain some significant correlations between financial position and mental health. 53 per cent of students with financial difficulties have worse mental health than when they started this year – for those that are comfortably well off, that’s 19 per cent. The anxiety score is 3.6 (out of 10) for those comfortably well off – it’s 5.9 for those with major financial difficulties. And so on.

One bonus finding is some extra categorisation surrounding academic dissatisfaction. 67 per cent put it down to how learning is delivered, and 52 per cent put it down to academic support. And as we spotted in November, satisfaction in generation looks closely linked to financial position – 74 per cent of those that are comfortable financially are satisfied with the academic experience, collapsing to 55 per cent for those with major financial difficulties. Headline 2023 NSS results should really control for financial position.

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