Yesterday, I was delighted to lead a debate in Westminster Hall on the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on students in further and higher education.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Students, of which I am chair, has this year been conducting a two-part inquiry into the impact of the cost of living on students; one looking at higher education and another exploring the specific impact on further education students and apprentices.
Our reports set out how the crisis has impacted students from all backgrounds and modes of study across the UK. Cutting back on food and heating, increasing paid employment to levels that interfere with their studies and limiting activities that will help them in the jobs market are just some of the ways students are struggling in the current climate.
In my contribution, I urged the government to consider implementing the APPG’s recommendations to ease the pressure on students and tackle both the immediate crisis as well as the longer-term issues that are likely to impact not only a generation of students but on skills that are essential to the UK workforce.
You can read my speech in Westminster Hall below and read the full debate here.
“This is a timely debate coming as the new academic year starts. It is based on the two-stage inquiry undertaken during the first half of the year by the all-party parliamentary group for students, which I chair and officers of which are also present. We looked at the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on higher education students, on which we reported in March, and, in partnership with the all-party parliamentary group on further education and lifelong learning—whose chair, the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), I welcome —on FE students, on which we reported in July.
Although many others have been impacted hard by the cost-of-living crisis, we were concerned that students should not be overlooked. We were not alone in that concern. Petitions Committee staff wrote to me last week to tell me that there have been six petitions to Parliament seeking support for students. It is important that students are not seen as a homogeneous group. In FE and HE, there is enormous diversity of students, including part-time and full-time; distance learners and commuter students; many with families and caring responsibilities, juggling work with study; classroom-based and apprentices; undergraduates and postgraduates; and home and international. Of course, there is the difference in the arrangements and responses across the four nations of the UK.
The current student cohort, though, have one thing in common: the double misfortune of educational disruption from covid and now the cost of living crisis. Our inquiry collated evidence from universities and student unions, and directly from hundreds of students who engaged with us. We drew on the work of others, including the Office for National Statistics, the Sutton Trust, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Save the Student. I would like to thank Parliament’s Chamber Engagement Team for its work in gathering feedback since the debate was announced. Just over the past couple of days, we have had upwards of 160 students, parents and others contact us.
So what did we hear? First, we heard that the student support system has failed to keep up with rising costs and that it was already unfit for purpose when the cost of living crisis hit, particularly given the decreasing value of student loans. According to the Save the Student survey, the loan fell short of average costs that students face by £439 per month in 2021-22, and that had increased to a shortfall of £582 per month last year. Other factors include the freezing of the lower parental earnings threshold, which means that the proportion studying outside London who receive the maximum student loan fell from 57% in 2012-13 to 38% in 2021-22.
Another contributory factor, according to the IFS, was the inflation forecast errors used to calculate loan increases, which mean that their real value is lower now than at any time in the past seven years. On top of that, we have had the scrapping of maintenance grants. The cumulative effect has pushed many students to a tipping point. More than a quarter of students were left with less than £50 a month, after paying rent and bills last year. As my hon. Friend points out, rent is accelerating at a significant rate. Our inquiry found 96% facing financial difficulty, with food, rent and energy the biggest pressures, but transport costs were also a key issue and particularly difficult for commuter students, many of whom chose to be home-based precisely to save money. Students have been struggling to get to their classes, access libraries and travel to placements.
The inquiry was a genuine learning exercise for us and we were particularly concerned to hear about the sharp increase in hours of paid employment taken by students. Of our respondents, 61% worked alongside their studies and 37% said that they are working more hours because of cost-of-living pressures. The Sutton Trust reported that about half of undergraduates missed classes last year due to paid employment. Around a quarter missed a deadline or asked for an extension on a piece of work.
They are often in precarious and insecure jobs. Johanna, one of the respondents to the Chamber Engagement Team survey, said,
“I have had to take several jobs, as the part time job sector is full of zero hours contracts with little stability and no promise of actual work. I am working more than I should have to and my grades are suffering.”
As well as affecting academic work, paid employment also affects involvement in extracurricular activities. People might ask why that matters so much, but it matters enormously because volunteering roles involve networking, team working, leadership skills and wider opportunities. Those experiences give graduates that extra edge in the job market.
Hitting grades, weakening skills development and limiting CVs—this all means that those from poorer backgrounds, who are the ones relying on ever increasing paid employment, are particularly disadvantaged, reversing the efforts of successive Governments to widen opportunities and ensure that those who take advantage of higher education go on to succeed. Since our inquiry, we are beginning to see the impact on retention, with rising drop-out rates. The sector group, MillionPlus, has estimated that as many as 90,000 to 108,000 students might find it too difficult financially to continue to study.
Responding to all of those challenges, most universities have put more money into hardship funds. Others have developed initiatives to offset the pressures faced by students, though not uniformly. The sector probably could do more. Just last week, the Higher Education Policy Institute published a report saying that those initiatives included supporting students with food costs, providing both means-tested and unconditional hardship funding, and subsidising student activities. And, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) pointed out, a quarter now have food banks on campus.
University support services have substantially increased their workload, extending the criteria for hardship funds, drawing in more eligibility, and working with their student unions. Our survey found that many students have not always accessed the funds available, either because they were not aware of them, which is a challenge for the sector, or because they did not think they qualified for additional help.
Recently, we have seen some universities moving to a three-day week in their timetabling on some academic programmes, to allow students to fit in their part-time jobs alongside study and to limit the impact of commuting costs. That may offer immediate relief, but it is not a solution.
There are other ways in which financial pressures are affecting life chances. Many students aiming for master’s programmes, which have become important as an additional benefit in the job market, said they were reconsidering. For example, Alex, who also responded through the Chamber Engagement Team, said:
“as a working-class student in my penultimate year, I see my peers consider postgraduate study and I wonder how they can afford it. I’ll never be able to save enough”.
Postgraduate research students told us that they, too, were struggling—that stipend payments are insufficient to meet living costs and that PGRs are ineligible for childcare grants as they are in education: they often cannot access hardship funds because they fall into the gap between the definition of being a member of staff and that of being a student.
There are issues to address across the board. Our evidence confirmed a disproportionate impact on already marginalised and underrepresented groups, disabled students, black and minority ethnic students, care leavers and students who are estranged from their families. The Sutton Trust found that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more affected, with a third skipping meals to save costs. It also found that a fifth, mainly from disadvantaged backgrounds, plan to live at home as commuter students during term time to reduce costs. That might be okay for some. It might work in London, where there is a wide range of higher educational choices. However, it limits university choice and limits course choice for many students across the rest of the country.
Our inquiry made four key recommendations to Government for higher education. First, to provide further hardship funding to universities to enable them to support those most in need. Secondly, to increase student maintenance loans to restore their real value and to maintain that value by taking a similar approach to uprating benefits. Thirdly, to consider reintroducing maintenance grants, as was recommended by the review the Government commissioned from Sir Philip Augar. Fourthly, to increase the household income threshold for the maximum student loan, which has been frozen since 2008. At that point, the threshold was in line with average earnings of £25,000, but those average earnings are now £33,000.
I move on to our further education inquiry. I am sure the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on further education and lifelong learning, the hon. Member for Waveney, who is present, will cover many of the specific points, so I will skim over them a little more lightly. Our evidence found that, although FE students face similar financial pressures, many face additional ones, supporting not just themselves but in many cases having to support their families. FE students who responded to our survey reported difficulties with transport in particular and 72% said they face costs that put them in financial difficulty. Like HE students, they were working more paid hours to make ends meet, struggling to prioritise their coursework and classes and facing negative impacts on mental health.
Retention was also a key issue for colleges, with a decline in student attendance taking up resources to ensure students do not drop out of their studies. That is not just a problem for the colleges. Many students in FE are on technical and vocational courses—I know that is an issue close to the Minister’s heart—providing essential skills for the UK workforce. The Association of Colleges reported to us that bursaries and hardship funds are becoming an essential item for family budgets. It is a bit like the point about food banks. Some reported students walking several miles a day to college so they could use their transport bursary to support their family with food and energy costs.
FE does not have the funding of HE and colleges cannot provide the same support. Of serious concern to us were emerging reports that colleges have been dealing with a significant rise in family tensions and domestic abuse because of cost-of-living pressures and have been referring more students to supported housing. Shockingly, some colleges told us about increased safeguarding issues, with cash-strapped students vulnerable to criminal and sexual exploitation.
Concerns were also raised about apprentices, with an average wage of £5.28 an hour, not being eligible for the 16-to-19 bursary because of Government rules—apprentices often travel furthest to placements, attend more regularly and are left more exposed to travel costs. We subsequently heard about the particular issue facing young carers doing T-levels, who will lose their carer’s allowance if they study for more than 21 hours a week. So the cost of living crisis is affecting decisions not only about whether to remain in further education, but about the type of course, with many leaning towards shorter courses or those that lead more quickly to securing work, sacrificing ambition and limiting their potential.
Our key inquiry recommendations to the Government for FE included providing additional funding support so that providers can increase bursaries targeted at those most in need; reviewing the mandated eligibility criteria for bursary funds—this is an easy one as it does not cost anything—to provide colleges with more flexibility to determine eligibility; considering the case for extending free school meal eligibility so that colleges can provide more subsistence support; considering the introduction of free or subsidised travel for all 16 to 19-year-olds in FE or training; and increasing the apprenticeship minimum wage, including enabling providers to use bursary funds to support apprentices as well as other FE students.
My final point is that, in FE and in HE, the key takeaway from our inquiry has been the particular impact on students from poorer backgrounds. We are seeing the cost-of-living crisis damaging access and participation, limiting opportunities, affecting lives, levelling down not up, widening the skills gap and weakening our research capacity as a country. I hope that the Minister, and indeed the shadow minister, will give full consideration to our recommendations.”