Universities in England and Wales are doubling or tripling their hardship funds in anticipation of “unprecedented” demand from students struggling with the cost of living, amid fears of widespread dropouts unless ministers offer more support.
Just days into the new academic year, university and student leaders said they were already seeing signs of students being unable to cope, including not affording books for their courses, working 40-hour weeks, and being at risk of homelessness.
Charlie Jeffery, the vice-chancellor of York University, said students were facing general inflation combined with a “chunky real-terms cut” to the value of their maintenance loans, which rose by 2.3% this year despite inflation running at 10%, and less help from families grappling with soaring household bills.
“That’s threefold pressure on students, which hasn’t yet been mitigated significantly by government measures – most so far just don’t reach students,” he said.
Jeffery said he and other vice-chancellors from the research-intensive Russell Group had written to the education secretary to ask for increased maintenance loans and a reintroduction of the pandemic hardship payments.
In the meantime, vice-chancellors have boosted their universities’ packages to help students make ends meet, including free meals, energy grants, rent freezes and increased bursaries.
David Bell, the vice-chancellor of Sunderland University, said his institution had tripled its hardship bursary and widened eligibility requirements, with about 20% already having received extra support over the past two years.
He said: “We’ve got enough evidence to suggest the demand is rising – last year our hardship funding was fully spent up, and this year we decided to put in quite a bit more money.”
The University of East London, which has doubled hardship funds, said it was already receiving “unprecedented” calls about when bursary applications would open and has received questions from students facing homelessness. The University of South Wales said its support teams were seeing far more serious cases of financial need.
Fears are growing about the impact on mental health for a cohort of students who missed out on socialising and rites of passage at school.
A survey from NUS Wales in the summer found that 90% of students said the cost-of-living crisis affected their mental wellbeing, especially given the estimated £340 gap between the average UK maintenance loan and living costs.
Orla Tarn, the president of NUS Wales, worried about the impact of isolation on students who can’t afford to go out. One student told Tarn that despite Wales’s more generous student finance package, they have just £100 to last the term after paying rent and bills.
Tarn and more than 150 student leaders from 80 different universities have written to the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, urging him to include support for students in his medium-term fiscal plan on 31 October to ease the “profound impact on students’ ability to learn”, with three-quarters unable to afford essential course materials, and one in three living on £50 a month after paying rent and bills.
The NUS president for higher education, Chloe Field, said: “In the chancellor’s statement the government once again failed to recognise the serious impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on student communities.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “We understand global inflationary pressures are squeezing household finances and people are worried about covering the basics.
“Students who are worried about making ends meet should speak to their university about the support they can access. This year, universities [in England] can boost their hardship funds by drawing on up to £261m we have made available through the Office for Students.”
But vice-chancellors said that university budgets are already stretched thin as they grapple with inflation and the eroded value of the tuition fee.
“We are facing real challenges in balancing out our priorities, and while we are very much focused on supporting our students, that means other stuff goes down the list.
“At some point, recognising it’s not the most propitious of moments now, we need a much fuller conversation nationally about how we produce a system for funding undergraduate higher education which works, because the current one does not,” said Jeffery.
Amanda Broderick, the vice-chancellor of the University of East London, feared that more students would drop out of university because they were unable to afford it, with rates for last year published by the Student Loan Company in September already showing a 23% annual increase in student withdrawals.
“For us not to be able to support our students through economically challenging times would be an absolute travesty,” she said.
Ben Calvert, the vice-chancellor of the University of South Wales, said the impact of the cost-of-living crisis was more “broad and deep” than the pandemic had been.
Even 18-year-old students from middle-income families, who receive less state funding, could struggle, as parents have less money to spare, he said.
Among those worst affected are students over 25, with a risk that many could abandon training for vital public services jobs, such as nursing or social work, in favour of employment.
“We can’t afford in Wales to have fewer nurses coming into the system,” he said.