Policy Briefing

Learning with the lights off: students and the cost-of-living crisis

10 Oct 2022

The unfolding cost of living crisis risks setting-back the widening participation successes seen in the UK over recent years. The existing packages of financial assistance, announced by the UK government over the course of 2022, fail to help students.

The analysis of the 2022 Student Academic Experience Survey outlined in this paper identifies the more than 300,000 undergraduates that will be hardest hit financially in the coming academic year. These students are more likely to belong to groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education. Black and mature students are the two groups most at-risk of immediate financial hardship. Additionally, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, those from areas with lower rates of participation in higher education and students who live-at-home or commute to campus are also more likely to be at-risk. Given the close links between thoughts of quitting, mental health problems and financial difficulties, universities face significant rates of attrition in the coming months. This places successful widening participation policies at significant risk.

As the institutions that educate a disproportionally high number of students at-risk of financial hardship, modern universities have been quick to act. A recent survey of responses to the cost-of-living crisis by MillionPlus universities illustrates a range of innovative and targeted programs aimed at mitigating rising costs. Yet the scale of the problem requires immediate action from the government and regulator.

Immediate increases to maintenance funding would bring short-term relief for many students. Alongside this, hardship funds for universities should be increased, and students should be better included in the existing assistance programmes announced by the government throughout 2022. For their part, universities can work to signpost students to financial and mental health assistance while working with local businesses and authorities to reduce the financial burden on students. Modern universities, as educators of a greater share of at-risk students and through existing programmes, are central to mitigating the crisis currently facing many of their students.

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