Sian Norris speaks to students living in Bristol about the impact of rising costs on their studies and wellbeing

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“I’ve had to miss seminars and workshops because I need to work part-time to make ends meet,” Felix tells Byline Times. “It’s stressful and it’s frustrating when I’m at university because I love learning. But it’s a choice between going to the seminar or paying my rent”.

Having spent the first two years of their degree in and out of Covid-19 lockdowns, final year students are now facing a new crisis: the cost of living.

According to new data from the Office of National Statistics, more than nine in 10 higher education students reported that their outgoings had increased compared with last year, and the same proportion were either “somewhat or very worried about the rising cost of living”.

Students in hardship can access support through the student premium, for which the Office for Students have made £261 million of funding available this year. But while in the past it was students from deprived backgrounds that needed financial help, rising costs mean that even better off young people are struggling.

Like most students, Felix has a student loan designed to cover his living expenses, and he recognises that he is “privileged” to get help from his parents, too. But his landlady has recently put up the rent, energy bills are rocketing and rising food prices means he “sometimes has to skip getting my five-a-day”. The flatshare he lives in has yet to put the heating on – “I tend to work in bed,” admits his flatmate Rosie. “It’s the only place I feel warm”. 

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The pressures of the cost of living have had an impact on how confident students feel about their studies. The ONS found that 77% of students were concerned that the rising cost of living may affect how well they do in their studies, and more than a third (34%) of students reported they are now less likely to do further study after their course has completed.

This is the case for Felix. He had hoped to do a Masters in film studies, a subject he is clearly passionate about. Now he’s not so sure.

“I’m having to reconsider doing a Masters because I don’t think I can hack another year of juggling money and my degree,” he tells Byline Times. His testimony suggests that post-graduate studies, particularly in the humanities, risk becoming an option only for the wealthy, who can rely on parental support. 

Research published by the Office for Budget Responsibility found that the most deprived students will be £1,000 poorer due to inflation forecast errors, because maintenance loans have not kept up with inflation which is now at 11.1%. This means, says the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that students will be much harder hit by the cost of living crisis than previously thought. 

The news that loans are not stretching to meet living costs is not news to Felix. “My schedule has no redundancy in it,” he elaborates. As well as studying full time, he works 16 hours a week in a local pub. “I can keep on top of my job and my studies if I am productive 100% of the time. But the other week I got sick and ended up falling behind, I nearly failed an assignment because of it. There is no margin for error when you have to work and study for a degree”. 

New Inflation Figures Increase Pressure on Council Budgets

Sian Norris

As well as rent, heating and food, the cost of living crisis means the traditional student lifestyle of drinks and clubs feels closed off to many. Felix refers to the stereotype that students live off takeaways – “that sounds like the height of decadence to me,” he laughs. “The student experience of partying has become an afterthought”. 

Rising costs, cold homes, pressures of juggling work and study, and no money to let off steam is having an impact on mental health. The ONS found the average level of life satisfaction among higher education students was significantly lower than the adult population in Great Britain – 5.9 to 6.8. Just under half (45%) of students reported their mental health and well-being had worsened since the start of the autumn term 2022.

For those taking medication to help them deal with mental health issues, the stress is exacerbated by having to pay for prescriptions. “Sometimes I struggle to afford my medication,” says Rosie. “Then I get really awful withdrawal symptoms if I don’t take it, which would impact my studies”. 

Both are aware that the impact of the cost of living crisis won’t end at graduation, and that they will be entering the job market during a recession. The university has a strong careers service, Felix says, and the advice it offers is helpful. But he does not feel hopeful about what comes next. “Before I went to university, I was more optimistic about my future,” he tells Byline Times. “Now I am not sure how I am going to support myself. My window of opportunity feels much narrower”. 

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “We recognise the financial challenges students face with the rise in global inflation. That is why we have continued to increase the amount students can access through loans and grants for living and other costs every year. Many universities are also doing fantastic work to support their students through a variety of programmes and we urge any student who is worried about their circumstances to speak to their university”.

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