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How the cost of living crisis is hurting students

Exclusive: As maintenance grants fail to keep pace with inflation, students on low incomes struggle to get by

Anita Mureithi
26 August 2022, 3.21pm

Students’ maintenance loans are set to rise by just 2.3% over the next year, far less than the predicted 18% inflation


Iain Masterton / Alamy Stock Photo

When 20-year-old Lucy* moved to university two years ago, she didn’t expect to be juggling three part-time jobs in order to survive. Or that she’d have to skip meals when money was tight.

Most recently, the rising cost of basic necessities has led to Lucy having to go without washing her clothes when she can’t afford laundry detergent, or using hand soap when she runs out of shower gel.

With inflation set to hit 18.6% by January – the highest rate in almost half a century – the Institute for Fiscal Studies is warning that financial support for students is falling short. Maintenance loans are set to rise by just 2.3% over the next academic year.

For students who are already on limited incomes, this means they will struggle to afford essentials such as food, rent and energy bills. Many will be forced to search for work – potentially at a detriment to their studies.

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One of the three jobs Lucy worked last academic year took up two full days per week, meaning that she had to miss out on lectures and seminars. The experience took a toll on her mental health.

“I just couldn't deal with the stress of having to go to work to pay bills. This wasn't a choice. I had to do it. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to afford to live at uni,” says Lucy.

“That was really hard. I had a lot of suicidal thoughts. Just because I couldn't keep up with working all the time and doing my degree.

“I thought, well, I'll be better off dead. Because then at least I won't have all these debts. It's horrible not living on very much at all.”

In an NUS survey of 3,500 students, 90% of respondents indicated that the cost of living crisis is harming their mental health.

It feels like working-class students are 10 years older in terms of maturity because we’ve got so much stress

With roughly £40 a month left after rent and bills – enough to cover food shopping but not to deal with unexpected costs – Lucy says she finds it hard to make ends meet.

“I’m still in my overdraft, there are constant bills to pay … It all builds up,” she says. The minimum maintenance loan payment she receives leaves her £1,000 short every year.

“I have to be really careful with things because if I have to get something replaced – new shoes, or if I drop my phone and need the screen fixed – I don't have it in my budget to do so.

“I think one of the hardest parts is seeing other people not struggling. I’ve lived with quite a few people that don’t have jobs while they’re at uni and they just don’t understand the stress of it,” she says.

“There’s also the peer pressure side of it, because everyone wants to go out clubbing, everyone wants to go out on the weekends, and I [couldn’t] afford that.”

From September, the government will cap student loan interest rates at 6.3%, a lower figure than originally planned. But the IFS has pointed out that this does “nothing at all” to protect current students, or those starting university in September, as repayments don’t start until after graduation.

The shortfall in maintenance loans will place even more pressure on students from low-income backgrounds, who must already juggle stressful working hours with their studies.

Mounting pressure

For 21-year-old Marcus, going to university marked the first time he felt truly depressed.

Now about to start his third year at Birmingham University, Marcus says he makes do with roughly £25 a week after paying for rent, bills and essentials, despite receiving the full maintenance loan and working part-time.

Marcus sends his parents a cut of that £25 whenever he can. His mother was recently made redundant from her job as a dinner lady, and Marcus feels a duty to do what he can to help with costs.

“Because I’m from a low-income background, my parents don't have enough money to support themselves, let alone me. So then I kind of feel like I have to support them as well,” he says. “You’re only 19, 20, and you shouldn't really be supporting your family financially but you feel like you have to.

“[It’s] just really difficult to actually balance university and finances at the same time,” he explains.

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Marcus receives roughly £3,000 per term. This money has to cover rent, bills and commutes to classes, plus all the other costs that his parents haven’t been able to help with.

“When I first started university, I only had two pairs of jeans. I didn’t have a laptop. I didn’t have anything.

“You always feel like you're playing catch up. You’re always one step behind everyone else,” Marcus says.

“Sometimes I do sit down and look around me [at university] and I see people in their nice clothes, having a great time, going to different social events. And I just think, you’re so lucky and you don’t realise it.”

This has left him feeling isolated, missing out on social activities that often play a huge role in shaping students’ university experiences.

“People don’t realise, even the social things like joining societies is so expensive. Some I wanted to join were hundreds of pounds. And there’s nothing in place to financially support students from lower-income backgrounds.”

Like many students with no one to fall back on, carrying the weight of constant financial worry has caused Marcus immense stress.

“It kind of feels like working-class students are about 10 years older in terms of maturity because we’ve got so much stress about how to deal with everything,” he says.

University has been the first time I've ever struggled with mental health, because of the financial situation

Before starting university, Marcus thought that there would be more financial support for students from working-class backgrounds.

“It’s become clear that [support is] inadequate. It’s not right… It feels like whenever we talk about it, it’s like talking to a brick wall. It never gets anywhere.

“University has been the first time I've ever struggled with mental health, because of the financial situation, and all the other things I have to balance as well.”

Lack of support

Nehaal Bajwa, NUS Vice President for Liberation and Equality, told openDemocracy: “Working-class students are far less likely to have savings or be able to fall back on financial support from their family.

“It is inevitable, then, that more of them are forced to pick up work to get by during the cost of living crisis – just as they did when the government cut funding for maintenance grants. Students shouldn’t be in a position where they have to sacrifice academic achievements in favour of working long hours just to survive.

“This is yet another example of our education system reproducing and deepening existing class inequalities in our society, rather than levelling them.”

While students are struggling to pay rising rent, energy and food bills, some university bosses are pushing for a hike in tuition fees. This rise could see students paying closer to the £24,000-a-year average fee for international students.

According to the Sunday Times, if tuition fees had kept pace with inflation, students would now be paying £12,000 a year, rather than £9,250.

For Marcus, the system is not built for students like him and Lucy. “There’s just no consideration for the struggles that people from working class backgrounds have to face… There’s no flexibility in the system,” he says.

“[People] like me just feel left behind.”

*Names have been changed

If you are struggling to cope, please call Samaritans free 24 hours a day on 116 123 email [email protected] or visit the Samaritans website to find details of the nearest branch.

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