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Higher education students

As UK household costs and bills have risen, university leaders have warned higher education students are at risk of becoming “the forgotten group in the cost of living crisis”. Black students, disabled students, students aged over 25, and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are likely to be hardest hit by rising costs of food, transport, rent, and energy.

Cost of living pressures

The most recent survey published by the Department for Education in its Student Income and Expenditure series covers 2021/22. Findings for England were published on 30 November 2023. Much of the survey fieldwork was carried out between March and June 2022, so while the results captured some of the rise in inflation that began in 2021, they do not account for the peaks seen in late 2022 and early 2023, when CPI inflation was consistently above 10%.

  • In 2021/22, 46% of full-time and 44% of part-time students reported they had faced financial difficulties during their course.
  • While median maintenance support for all full-time students rose by 13% in 2021/22 to £5,950, for full-time students eligible for both maintenance loans and grants in 2014/15 – that is to say, the poorest students – median maintenance support effectively decreased by 21% when compared with the median support received solely from maintenance loans in 2021/22 (from £8,932 to £7,100).
  • Since 2014/15, the proportion of full-time students working alongside their studies increased from 52% to 58%. In 2021/22, the median number of hours worked for full-time students in a week was 8, but this rose to 12 for Black British students, 14 for students from routine/manual class backgrounds, and 20 for students aged over 25.

In recent years other reports have described the financial pressures students face. These can vary in quality (many are based on self-selecting surveys), but they consistently show significant numbers of students are struggling to meet their living costs and this is having a detrimental effect on their studies and mental health.

Are current levels of support sufficient?

Over half (58%) of respondents to the ONS’ February 2023 Student Cost of Living Insights Study said their student loan did not cover necessary costs. Save the Student found a monthly shortfall of £582 between the average student’s maintenance loan and living costs in 2023, up from £439 in 2022. Students have reported increasing their hours at work and working multiple jobs to make ends meet.

In 2022/23, student maintenance support did not rise in line with inflation across the UK. For the 2023/24 academic year, Northern Ireland has increased maximum student maintenance loans by 40%, Wales by 9.4% for undergraduate students, and Scotland by 11.1% for the worst-off students. In England, maintenance support has increased by 2.8% for the 2023/24 academic year. Unlike their peers from the rest of the UK, undergraduate students from England can no longer access maintenance grants.

Maintenance loans in England

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has identified several problems with the way maintenance loans are calculated for students in England that have meant support has not kept up with inflation due to “large stealth cuts”. These include the freezing of the parental earnings threshold and incorrect inflation forecasts with no mechanism to adjust for errors.

In November 2023, when asked if it had plans to adjust maintenance support for students in England in line with inflation, the Government said:

Decisions on student finance have been taken alongside other spending priorities to ensure the system remains financially sustainable and the costs of HE [Higher Education] is shared fairly between students and taxpayers, not all of whom have benefited from going to university.

Calls for more support

The National Union of Students has said the Government should introduce a “tailored student cost of living support package”, while universities have called for an increase to maintenance loans in line with inflation, and the return of maintenance grants in England.

The March 2023 APPG for Students report made similar recommendations and said the Government should reform the way maintenance loans are calculated in England and provide further hardship funding through universities that targets those most in need.

Further education students

Cost of living pressures

Further education students are facing similar financial pressures to their peers in higher education, with increasing costs in food, energy bills, transport, rent and other living expenses. According to a July 2023 report by the All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) for Students and for Further Education and Lifelong Learning (PDF), this has similarly led to students working excessive hours, struggling to prioritise their classes and assignments, and mental health troubles.

However, there are several distinctive ways cost of living pressures are shaping the experiences of further education students.

Calls for more support

In England, the demand for bursary support from students has risen in recent years, with Hartlepool College reporting that 95% of its 16-18 cohort applied in 2022-23, compared to 65% in 2021-22. However, while demand has increased for this support, Government spending is lower. Recorded expenditure on the EMA in England in 2010-11 (its last full year of operation) was £555 million. This is more than double the £225 million spent on the 16 to 19 bursary in 2021/22 (a figure that also includes expenditure on 16 to 19 free school meals funding).

The July 2023 APPG report (PDF) made six recommendations to the Government to alleviate the impact of the cost of living on further education students, including:

  • Provide additional funding support for further education so providers can increase bursaries and target those most in need.
  • Consider the case for extending free school meal eligibility and increase the free meal rate from £2.41 per student, so colleges can provide more subsistence support.
  • Introduce free or subsided travel for all 16- to 19-year-olds in further education or training to help with travel costs.

Westminster Hall debate (September 2023)

On 19 September 2023, there was a debate in Westminster Hall on the impact of increases in the cost of living on further and higher education students.

Opening the debate, the chair of the APPG on students, Paul Blomfield, said it was important students were not seen as a homogeneous group, but the current cohort had one thing in common: “the double misfortune of educational disruption from covid and now the cost of living crisis”.

Contributions from other MPs highlighted how:

  • A number of the schemes introduced by the Government to support people with the cost of living specifically excluded students.
  • Maintenance loans in England had risen at a much lower rate than the rest of the UK.
  • Many further education students were faced with very high travel costs.

In response, the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships, and Higher Education, Robert Halfon, said the Government was doing everything it could to help students, but publicly funded support needed to be placed in the financial context of recent outlays, including during the Covid-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine.

Further information

This briefing considers how recent rises in the cost of living have affected students. For information on what financial support might be available to students, see the Commons Library casework article Cost of living support for students.

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