Ahh, the cost of living crisis. Where do I even start? At this point, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, particularly to students who are struggling to pay rent under its current constraints.
On 26 October 2023, the student housing charity Unipol published the ‘The Ten Cities Rent’ survey, which showed that rents now swallow up “virtually all” of the average maintenance loan UK students get. The charity also stated that the market was reaching a “crisis point” in affordability.
Rents for student accommodation have increased by an average of 14.6 per cent over the past two academic years to £7,475 from £6,520. Nevertheless, maintenance loans have risen by only 5.2 per cent during that period. For the 2023 to 2024 academic year, maintenance grants will only be increased by 2.8 per cent. This means that students who receive the maximum amount of maintenance will get £9,978 if they live outside of London in the 2023 to 2024 academic year. This is £1,583 less than the £11,501 they would have received if maintenance was tied to inflation, according to Big Issue North. Students living in London can receive up to £13,022, which is still not adjusted for inflation.
This leaves little money for food, school supplies, transport costs, and having a social life. Furthermore, it needs to be stressed that this amount is only accessible to students who qualify for the highest possible loan due to low-income parents. Gen Zers whose parents earn a median income can expect to receive less. It is, without a doubt, a full-blown crisis.
To understand this rather marginal increase in maintenance grants, SCREENSHOT reached out to the UK’s Department for Education for comment.
In a statement, the department replied: “Our student finance system ensures that the highest levels of support are targeted at students from the lowest-income families. However, if students are worried about their circumstances, we urge them to speak to their university.”
“Many universities are doing a brilliant job to support students who are struggling financially through a variety of programmes,” the department affirmed. “To support universities to help their students we are making £276 million available this academic year, which institutions can use to top up their own hardship schemes. This is on top of increases to student loans and grants.”
A common form of financial aid that UK students can apply for is hardship funds from their respective universities.
However, in July 2022, the BBC reported that 95 UK universities have seen the number of students asking for emergency cash nearly triple between the 2018 to 2019 and 2020 to 2021 academic years. Therefore, universities have had to be more selective with whom they choose to receive funding, which means more students in need are being turned away.
Thus, the only other viable option is to work.
To gain a better understanding of how working throughout a whole degree can impact students, SCREENSHOT spoke to 26-year-old Media Operations Manager Emma Adkins. She was getting “not too far off from the full amount” of student finance while she was studying.
“I think I could have just about afforded to do uni without working but it would have been very, very difficult,” Adkins shared. “I couldn’t have done it without working over summer and over Christmas, which was about five months of the year.”
When asked about the difficulties she would have faced without work, Adkins responded that her mental health would have suffered massively: “I still could have probably just about paid my bills. But it would have been like beans on toast every day and plain pasta, that sort of thing, which would have been quite draining mentally. And not being able to do anything with my friends would have also really affected me. So I guess the main thing is that I could have afforded to do uni without working but it would have meant that my quality of life would have been quite depressing.”
After rent and bills, Adkins would have had roughly £2,700 to live on for the whole academic year, she said. This would have been around £300 to £330 a month, with the average cost for groceries lying at £235 and transport at £156.
During our conversation, I also asked Adkins about her friends’ situations. She immediately replied that she had one friend for whom working wasn’t even a question.
“She had way less of a student loan than I did and her parents didn’t help her at all. She wouldn’t have been able to get away without working. She had to work to cover her rent. She worked multiple bar jobs, I am not sure how many hours she did, but she wouldn’t have been able to afford any of the years if she hadn’t worked. And even when she was working, she still wasn’t able to do loads.”
With so many students seeming to be in similar situations, UK universities have started to reduce the number of days students are required to be on campus to enable them to work part-time jobs. From now on, most students will see a three-day ‘work week’.
“The model is entirely down to the cost of living issue,” said John Dishman, Pro-Cice Chancellor and CEO of CU Group to The Guardian. “Barking and Dagenham is the poorest borough of London. People rely on having part-time work and their income is basically maintenance loans and part-time work. We have seen it more and more over the last two years or so. People just will not have access to courses unless it is built alongside their ability to work. Some people are working nearly five days a week and studying with us the rest of the time. It’s not so much a part-time job as a full-time one. Their dedication is amazing. We have our graduation ceremony every year at the O2 and it’s just phenomenal the amount of work people put in to get there.”
I am not sure about you, but I have mixed feelings about this announcement. On one hand, it’s great that universities are acknowledging students’ need to work. I very vividly remember my academic tutor telling me off for it when I started uni in 2018 and insisting that I should “focus on my degree.” She made work appear like an unnecessary luxury I was only considering because I had too much time on my hands. That was far from the truth, as you can probably tell by now.
On the other hand, it feels like universities are just reaffirming that the burden will ultimately be on students to ensure that they can afford higher education, rather than them or the government. It feels as though we’re facing an uphill battle that’s showing no signs of coming to a halt.