Wilf, 22, is gearing up for a difficult conversation.
A Fashion Art Direction student at Manchester Metropolitan University, he’s gone to his mum’s in Cambridge to tell her that he’s dropping out. He’s nervous, but confident it’s the right thing to do. At the moment, his maintenance loan only just covers his rent, forcing him to dip into his steadily diminishing savings to cover daily expenses. Struggling to make ends meet, Wilf has weighed up the cost of his degree compared to the quality of education.
In his mind, it doesn’t add up.
“I don’t think it’s worth what I’m paying. I can’t justify the education that I’m getting,” he tells us over FaceTime. Wilf feels his future would be better off if he left uni behind to enter “the real world”. His plan? “I’m going to work a full-time job and do the creative work I want to do in my own time. At the minute, I’m not being paid and I’m not really learning anything, either.”
Dropping out may seem a drastic response to being a poor student, which has been a trope, a cliché even, for as long as we’ve had further education. But midway through the 2022 – 23 academic year, Wilf’s far from alone. New research has found that one in five students at Russell Group universities are considering quitting due to the cost-of-living crisis.
Meanwhile, a national Student Money Survey focusing on a wider range of universities found that 41 per cent of UK students have considered leaving their courses due to money issues. As the prices, charges and fees continue to spiral, more and more students are finding uni or college to be an impossible battle between pursuing further education and staying afloat financially.
Ross is a 19-year-old Scots Law student at the University of Glasgow. To avoid the rent he can’t afford, he’s chosen to live with his mum 20 miles away in Larkhall, sacrificing his social life to save money. But bills are still a problem.
“My mum’s struggling with gas and electricity bills,” he says. “It’s been £400 – 500 a month over the winter period. It’s ridiculous.” To help out, Ross balances a part-time job at Halfords alongside his full-time degree. His student loan payments don’t even cover daily living costs, let alone any contribution to his mum’s bills. “It’s like a dark cloud. You don’t really talk about it because it just brings out all the demons and all the emotions.”
Students like Ross are feeling the pinch in every area of their lives. There are the obvious energy and food costs. Even away from class time, more students are travelling to campuses to make use of their free heating, while almost a third are skipping meals to save money, with one in ten turning to food banks.
But there are uni-specific expenses, too. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Russell Group universities have raised annual rent at some accommodations by more than £1,000. In some instances, even completing coursework or reading has become nearly impossible, with 68 per cent of UK students unable to afford course materials.
Ross has experienced this first-hand. On his course, textbooks are between £50 to £60 each, with roughly six books on the essential reading list each year. Tallied up, that’s a few hundred quid that most students don’t have to spare. “Students are resorting to pirating copies of their textbooks,” he says of the practice of illegally downloading books, “instead of buying them from the university library.” Are they successful? “Aye, if you don’t get caught!”
For Chloe Field, Vice President for Education at the National Union of Students, Ross’s story is worryingly familiar. Over the past year, she’s heard from students all over the UK who are struggling to balance their studies and finances. Many, she says, are missing lectures because they need to work to cover bills or food for the week. And that’s a loss that goes beyond “just” missing essential learning.
“There seem to be a lot of people missing out on their educational experience in order to live, let alone the proper university experience, like meeting new people, going to societies and socialising,” says Field. “People just aren’t getting that chance anymore.”
She recently heard from a student struggling to make ends meet, despite working three part-time jobs and receiving the maximum student loan. “That is one of the failures of the current system. Students were already having to work part-time jobs because maintenance loans weren’t covering their costs, but [having multiple jobs] is more prominent now.
“People aren’t going to be able to learn and develop knowledge because they can’t afford it,” she continues. “But everyone should be able to financially access any type of education they want.”
The cost of living crisis is ravaging multiple areas of life, but its impact has been unequal. Marginalised communities have been hit hardest, while the richest in society have been cushioned from its impact. Students being priced out of university is a stark example of this, which not only illustrates the widening inequality gap but also lays bare its long-term effects.
Wealthier students will be able to continue their chosen degrees, eventually graduating into jobs that, on average, pay £7,000 more than their non-graduate counterparts. But those from low-income households are forced to choose between their current and future financial stability. The potential for social mobility is almost non-existent.
“We’ve been dealt an injustice. You can’t make a tiny minority prosper at the expense of the majority. That’s disgusting behaviour,” says Hamza, a 19-year-old International Relations student at the University of Glasgow. “There are so many opportunities. The only thing that’s restricting you is not yourself or your commitment. It’s money.”
In January, the government announced a cost-of-living package for students to ease the pressure of the crisis, providing an additional £15 million in university funding, as well as a 2.8 per cent increase in maintenance support.
But this so-called “boost” barely scratches the surface. That £15 million amounts to a meagre £5.60 per student, while the loan and grant increases were calculated using out-of-date inflation forecasts. In reality, even with the government’s cash injection, students from the poorest households will still be £1,500 worse off than they would have been if the inflation forecasts had been correct. In response to the widespread view that the government’s package is insufficient, Labour MP Paul Blomfield (whose Sheffield Central constituency contains a well-respected uni) launched an All-Party Parliamentary Group inquiry to investigate how the crisis is impacting students. (Blomfield did not respond to requests for comment.)
“Students are desperate for government and university intervention,” says Field. “People have been angry for a long time and this crisis has tipped them over the edge.”
The NUS recently launched a nationwide cost-of-living campaign and petition, demanding a realistic amount of government support for students during the crisis. Their research found that 96 per cent of students are cutting back on spending, with almost a third left with just £50 a month after paying rent and bills. And although there are government schemes to support the general public during the financial crisis, benefits bureaucracy means it’s often unclear whether students can access many of them. Universal Credit, for example, is a financial crutch that those in full-time education can’t lean on.
Aid from universities themselves has trickled out in varying forms. Some, such as Glasgow’s Caledonian University, are offering short-term relief through free hot breakfasts for students and staff. At the University of Cambridge, the student hardship fund has risen by 50 per cent and lunches have been subsidised. After lobbying from their student union, Queen’s University Belfast has increased its hardship fund, granted £150 to all students and £400 to those with a household income below £25,000 and waived both library fines and graduation fees.
To compound the challenges facing students, more than 70,000 staff at 150 universities across the UK have been on strike for 11 days across February and March in disputes over pay, work conditions and pensions. Solidarity between staff and students is strong – both parties are stuck under the boot of these institutions.
But for some already-hard-pressed students, it’s impossible to ignore the impact strikes are having on their education.
Wilf’s fashion course at Manchester Met, for instance, requires contact hours, workshops and access to studios. Although he empathises with the staff at his university, their absences have only fuelled his decision to drop out. “We’re paying an obscene amount of money and our teachers aren’t even coming in to teach us,” he says. “The whole system is just messed up.”
Chloe Field at the NUS argues that the problem isn’t a question of whether universities have the money to support staff and students properly. It’s what they’re using that cash for.
“Are they putting it into new buildings and boosting student recruitment, or are they putting that money into subsidising rents or giving out more bursaries or staff pay?” she asks. “That’s the big question we need to be asking: where is your money going now and why can’t you redirect it into the wellbeing of staff and students?”
Not unexpectedly, another crisis has mutated from the financial crisis. Ninety-two per cent of students surveyed by the NUS said the cost-of-living crisis is impacting their mental health, while students surveyed by the Russell Group Students’ Unions reported that they were suffering from severe anxiety, loneliness and suicidal feelings.
“Imagine if the only thing on your mind is, ‘When am I going to get money?’, or ‘How can I afford this?’” says Hamza. “But it’s not within our control. People are sitting there hopeless, trying to work out what to do. But there’s nothing you can do. It’s affecting our studies and our relationships.”
Some of the students who spoke to THE FACE describe their situations with an air of acceptance, worn down by the inevitability of the crisis. Tom, 20, from Lincoln, a common law student at a Scottish institution, is doing his best to uncouple financial pressure from increased mental strain. “It’s happening and it’s a case of you either deal with it or the money goes – so you just deal with it, I suppose,” he says with a shrug of resignation.
His friend Ross nods in agreement. “It can be stressful, but I’ve accepted it. I’m not going to get more money from elsewhere, so I just need to go with it.” It’s impressive stoicism in the face of such hardship. But these students are being left with no other choice.
Having already made his decision to leave university (and bracing for his mum’s response), Wilf is asking questions that will undoubtedly play more frequently in the minds of many current and future students. “Why am I wasting this time?” he says, exasperated. “Why am I sitting in a cold uni house, hungry, with no money, when I could be working?”
In its current configuration, buffeted by an economic crisis that is of course impacting those with already-precarious finances most heavily, our higher education system simply isn’t sustainable for the majority. This is a cost-of-learning crisis, and if nothing is done to protect teenagers and young people, the knock-on effect will damage this generation of students for years to come – and, by extension, damage society.
“Serious action needs to be taken to ensure that anyone, no matter what their background, is able to access higher education at any point in their life,” says Chloe Field. “Currently, that’s just not happening.”
Because let’s not forget: education should be a right, not a privilege.