Students in Wales are left depending on Westminster for any help this winter
Orla Tarn, Nus Wales President
I’ve spoken to thousands of students at universities and colleges across Wales since the beginning of the academic year. The pandemic diminished the student experience in so many ways, so it was great to see the return of bustling freshers’ fairs after years of socially distanced events.
But virtually every single student I talked to was worried about the cost-of-living crisis and eager to put their name to an NUS Wales petition calling for more support for students from the Welsh Government.
Some of the stories I heard were heart-breaking. A student with £100 of their loan left to last them until Christmas, an apprentice working 10 part-time jobs just to be able to maintain their education.
Our research backs up what I heard – one in three students in Wales is having to get by on just £50 each month after paying rent and bills, and more than half are cutting back on food.
We are all facing difficult decisions right now, but students have been frozen out of government support schemes so far. They have faced a postcode lotter for council tax rebates, they can’t access Universal Credit and there is a risk they’ll miss out on energy bill rebates if in bills-included rental contracts.
Against this backdrop, the need for action is clear. The value of the student support package has increased by between 2% and 3.5%, depending on where students are from in the UK. This is nowhere near in line with inflation.
Students are expected to cope with less and less money, all the while student rent has soared, inflation has hit double figures and the cost of energy has doubled since last winter.
In the last month, universities have put in place support measures to help students with living costs – from emergency food provision to extended access to heated study areas. Students’ unions have also been doing some fantastic work to ensure measures work for students on the ground.
Ultimately, these measures are sticking plaster solutions; what students across Wales desperately need is financial support, and that can only come with government intervention.
At the height of Covid, the Welsh Government invested more than £60m in supporting students. I would argue that this crisis represents an even bigger danger to students’ well-being and ability to thrive in their education, but so far similar support has not been forthcoming.
Welsh ministers are having to deal with the impacts of the crisis on their own budgets, which cannot go as far as they used to with high inflation and impending budget cuts from the new Chancellor.
They point to Wales’ student support package, the most generous in the UK, but that has not risen in line with prices, and about half of students in Wales do not receive the Welsh maintenance package – international students get nothing at all.
Despite the Welsh Government’s warm words towards students, it feels as though support will not be forthcoming with pressures on all areas of its budgets. That leaves students in Wales depending on the UK Government for any form of support.
Student leaders from 10 students’ unions at Welsh universities and colleges recently signed an open letter to the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. The letter was sent on the morning of 20th October. By the afternoon, Liz Truss had resigned as Prime Minister and another Tory leadership race was underway.
That instability has actively prevented targeted support from reaching the at-risk groups who really need it, including students. Politicians across the board are distracted by party political drama but as winter rapidly approaches, there is no more time to waste.
But the UK Government continues to delay, this time putting the Budget back to 17th November, which also happens to be International Students’ Day. The Budget represents one of our only chances to secure any sort of support for students this side of Christmas.
That is why I have written to all MPs across Wales to convey the urgency of the situation and asking them to call on the Westminster Government to do something to help students – whether that be through targeted support or expanding existing schemes like Universal Credit to be inclusive of students.
The fact students in Wales are having to go cap in hand to the UK Government despite education being devolved here is another argument for further powers to be given to Welsh ministers. After more than a decade of regressive policies, students will not be holding their breath for a favour from the Conservatives, but we must keep making the case.
If you’re a university or college student, an apprentice, or an ally in Wales, see NUS’ open letter to Jeremy Hunt here and join our campaign for support during the cost-of-living crisis here.
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