Students will fall into poverty this autumn without urgent action
Orla Tarn, NUS Wales President
Being “skint” is often seen as a ubiquitous part of student life. I certainly had weeks waiting for the latest chunk of my student loan to come in getting by on the most basic of meals. I fear, however, that as students return to campuses this month, the days of not thinking twice about ordering the next pint at the student bar or enjoying a meal out with course mates are over.
As the new President of the National Union of Students in Wales, I’m increasingly concerned about what impact the cost of living crisis is having on a generation that has already faced so much disruption and uncertainty during the pandemic.
Our latest research – a survey of 3,500 students across the UK – found that 96% of students are cutting back, largely on socialising, food, energy, transport to and from campus, educational resources, and basic healthcare.
And that’s before energy costs go up this autumn. The new Prime Minister’s plan to freeze the energy price cap at £2,500 still represents a significant rise from the current cap of £1,971. Our survey found that one in three students only has £50 a month to live on after paying rent and bills – now much of that will be swallowed up by the higher cap.
In Wales, university students are entitled to the most generous maintenance package of any UK nation. However, this has only risen by 3.5% this year, nowhere near in line with inflation. Also, about half of students in Wales are not from Wales, meaning they’ll be living off less maintenance support – or in the case of international students, no maintenance support at all.
It’s clear that students need help right now, and that existing support – such as council tax rebates and support through Universal Credit – has not been designed with students in mind. Without intervention from governments and institutions, no amount of budgeting is going to stop many students from falling into poverty this autumn.
Students are at financial breaking point, and this is only adding to a student mental health crisis already exacerbated by the pandemic, poor-quality housing and culture war warriors who are attacking the most vulnerable in our society.
It’s quite clear that this is a matter for the new Prime Minister and her Cabinet to tackle. The funding required to properly support students – by increasing maintenance support in line with inflation, providing more grants and bursaries and raising the pitiful apprentice minimum wage (£4.81) – can only be provided by the UK Government.
And it’s not just us at NUS asking for this. Last week university vice-chancellors from across the UK called on the UK Government to boost living support, pointing to the very real risk of more students dropping out of education because they just can’t afford to study.
But there are actions the Welsh Government can take. During the pandemic ministers invested more than £100 million to tackle financial hardship and safeguard student mental health. This is a crisis on par with the pandemic and the response from governments and institutions also needs to be on par.
In the long term, I want to see Wales go much further on education. The failed marketisation of higher education has put profit before students for over a decade now. The results can be seen today in soaring rents, regular strike ballots from underpaid and overworked staff across post-16 education, and an intense decline in the student experience.
The Welsh Government has the opportunity to imagine education differently and to adopt a radical approach for the benefit of students, learners and apprentices across the country. Through its Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill, it has strengthened protections student voice and mental health services, but there is much more to be done to place students and staff at the heart of the system.
In the short term my focus is on getting support to students on the front line of the cost of living crisis, but I want to work with ministers to forge a truly student-centred system that is sustainable and treats education as a public good, not a commodity to be bought and sold. Make no mistake, it’s a difficult time to be a student right now, but I can see a path to a brighter future.
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