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Opinion | The cost-of-living crisis has drastically altered the student experience

The cost of living crisis has altered the student experience and highlights a disturbing potential for growing inequality.

By Megan Ioannides, Opinion Sub-Editor

Every year when a new academic term begins and students rush back to their university cities, we prepare to return to cheap living and a busy social calendar. However, since the cost-of-living crisis was announced in 2022, the student experience has dramatically changed.

The crisis, of course has not just had an effect on students. People across the UK are seeing their wages stagnate whilst prices continue to rise in all aspects of life. For those in university however, the very nature of their lifestyles is now different.

That which we deem ‘student living’ has always consisted of keeping it cheap and cheerful. Staples like beans on toast or fish finger butties for tea have always been relied on. Enter a shop today however and the price of 10 Birdseye fish fingers is a staggering £4.10. Whilst prices vary and places like Aldi and Lidl are still essential for lower priced groceries, these stores are, more often than not, inaccessible. With lower budget stores located outside of city centres or student areas, a trip to the cheaper supermarket alone incurs extra costs. For myself in Bristol, the closest, walkable shops are Sainsbury’s, M&S and Waitrose, all known to be on the more expensive side. For many therefore, a weekly shop is threatening to break the bank.

Whilst inflation in the UK has skyrocketed in the past two years, no reflection of this has been seen in the allocation of student maintenance loans. Rent prices from private landlords have increased greatly, especially in the more expensive areas of the country. In Bristol, students can find themselves paying prices almost on par with London, despite not having an increased loan threshold, as those that study in the capital do.

Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash

The recently announced plan to rectify and increase maintenance loans, suggest that they will still only rise a disappointing 2.8%. University hardship funds for students have also been labelled inadequate and barely scrape the bottom of the barrel for the funding students realistically need.

Having had no support for the first two years of the crisis therefore, university goers have found themselves much more reliant on income from part-time work to keep afloat. A couple of shifts a week are no longer funding social lives and trips to the pub, but instead are the difference between being able to make rent or not. In fact, for students that work in the hospitality sector, the opportunity for a free or cheap meal at work also kills two birds with one stone. Thus, spending extended hours in employment is becoming unavoidable.

The annual Student Academic Experience Survey found that in 2021, 34% of students undertook part-time work alongside their studies, whereas in 2023 this has risen to 55%. Students who may have been fortunate enough to not work in their first and second years are suddenly finding themselves doing 4 days a week on minimum wage in their final year. And this hasn’t come without sacrifice.

The toll this takes on both free-time and energy means that the social and academic sides to student life are also taking huge hits. Missing out on social events or casual trips to the pub because of a shift has now become the new normal. A lack of free time is also making it extremely difficult to balance the academic aspects of university life, whilst buried under financial pressures. A shocking 76% of students agreed that the cost-of-living crisis has affected their studies, in the 2023 Student Experience Survey. Not only is this extra cause for concern in a time where students are constantly hit with strikes and marking boycotts, but it highlights a more disturbing path that could prevail in the future of the university experience.

From the survey, a great deal of those heavily affected came from low socio-economic backgrounds. If university life becomes too expensive, and the lack of support both financially from the government and academically from staff continues, it may well become unfavourable for many from poorer backgrounds to attend higher education at all. The cost-of-living crisis has been so damaging to the student experience that, as research from the Survey has highlighted, it is further “imbedding inequality into the higher education system”.

If these issues are not tackled soon, and the government continue to overlook student populations, the opportunity to attend university itself could become increasingly more exclusive.

Featured Image: Unsplash/Towfiqu Barbhuiya

Have you had to change your lifestyle at university as a result of the cost of living crisis? How has this affected your perception of the student experience? Let us know @epigrampaper_