Universities in England and Wales are doubling or tripling their hardship funds in anticipation of “unprecedented” demand from students struggling with living costs amid fears of widespread dropouts unless ministers offer more support.
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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 rising costs specific to university life, such as accommodation. “We know many students will be finding it hard to make ends meet this term,” he said.
York has recently increased its hardship fund by 50% this year. Other universities have made similar increases, with some trebling the size of their funds.
Students unions said the move was welcome but did not address the underlying problem of inadequate maintenance grants and loans.
Sorana Vieru, the National Union of Students vice-president for higher education, said: “The scale of the increase in hardship funds reflects the real-terms cut in support that students have experienced since 2012. It is also a sign that institutions recognise the seriousness of the situation.”
She added that unless ministers took action to address the funding crisis in higher education, “we are likely to see an increase in student dropouts and defaults on tuition fee loans”.
The Department for Education said it was “giving more people from disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to go to university than ever before”.
A spokesperson said: “We know the cost of living is a concern for students, which is why we are investing an extra £76 million in maintenance grants and loans this year, on top of the record £5.4 billion of extra funding we have already provided through our National Scholarship Programme.”
But unions and charities said the government’s support for students was “woefully inadequate”. They pointed out that the maximum maintenance loan available to students from low-income households had been frozen in real terms since 2010, while the cost of living had risen by more than 10% over the same period.
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said it was “deeply concerned” about the impact of financial hardship on students’ ability to stay in education.
General inflation and rising costs specific to university life, such as accommodation. “We know many students will be finding it hard to make ends meet this term,” he said.
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