Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Students are increasingly taking on paid work to cope with the cost of living while at university
By Marthe de Ferrer
Accommodation costs take up almost all the average maintenance loan received by university students in England, says student housing charity Unipol.
Students are illegally doubling up in rooms and working, said Unipol, which researched the issue with the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).
In the last two years, average student rent has gone up by 14.6%, while maintenance loans have risen by 5.2%.
The Department for Education said concerned students should ask for help.
In a statement, it told the BBC: “Our student finance system ensures that the highest levels of support are targeted at students from the lowest-income families.
“If students are worried about their circumstances, we urge them to speak to their university.”
‘The system is broken’
Average annual rent for students in England is £7,566, while the average maintenance loan received by students is expected to be £7,590 for the current academic year – leaving £24 a year to cover other essentials.
Students can borrow up to £9,978 a year for living costs (£13,022 in London), but only people with household earnings under £25,000 are eligible for the maximum amount.
“The student maintenance system is broken,” said Martin Blakey, Unipol’s chief executive .
“Students and parents need urgent and practical solutions to delivering affordable accommodation.”
Nick Hillman, director of Hepi said: “Compared to years gone by, we are now at a crisis point.
“Across most of the UK, the official levels of maintenance support simply do not cover anything like most students’ actual living costs.”
Hepi and Unipol are calling for the student finance system to be reformed, rebranding the maintenance loan as a “contribution to living costs”, and emphasising the importance of parental contributions.
The National Union of Students (NUS) has also argued for maintenance loans to be brought into line with inflation, as a recent survey found most full-time students are working part-time while studying.
“Poorer students are forced, in effect, to attend university part-time,” said Chloe Field of NUS UK. “They must juggle their studies with paid work in order to simply eat and put a roof over their heads.
“We are now at the point where accommodation costs are pricing students out of certain universities, which will have disastrous consequences for students from poorer backgrounds being able to access education.”
Research in September found that the average cost of renting a home rose by 12% in the year to August – more than the increase between 2015 and 2019.
‘I just have one meal on the weekend’
Julia Żelazo is a first-year student at the University of Manchester studying English literature and Chinese.
She receives £8,000 a year in maintenance support, which covers her accommodation in full and leaves her with an extra £1,000 a year to live off.
Image source, Julia Żelazo
Image caption, Julia says there is an “unacknowledged divide” between students with and without financial security
“There’s this expectation that university will be the greatest years of your life.
“And then me and my friends just send each other pictures being like ‘having sardines on toast today because they were 30p in Lidl!’.”
Julia says she is not eligible for extra support because her household income is over £25,000, but is not receiving any extra money from her family either.
“It just makes you feel like you’re living on the poverty line and you have no support to reach out to, because you don’t qualify for anything,” she says.
Julia is looking for a job she can do while balancing her studies, but has not found anything yet, so is relying on “really strict budgeting” to manage her costs.
“I can’t lie, I usually have just one meal on the weekend,” she says, “and whenever we hear there’s an opportunity to get free food or free stuff, we run.”
To her, there is an emerging and “unacknowledged divide” between students who are living comfortably and those who are struggling.
“Whenever I hang out with my flatmates there is this sense that some of them are able to go out and do things the rest of us just cannot,” she explains.
This also extends to academic resources, as Julia cannot afford to buy her own copies of her course’s required reading.
“I can’t even annotate my textbooks because they’re not technically mine… it’s just so clear who has the funds, whose parents can buy them textbooks or pay for trips.”
‘We just have the basic quality of life’
Kayleigh Atkins is a mature student at the University of Sunderland in her final year studying criminology.
The mother-of-three receives roughly £7,500 a year in maintenance loan, because her husband’s salary reduces how much she can have.
Although she knew going to university would “be tricky financially”, the reality has proved to be harder than expected.
“We’ve missed rent payments, because that’s our biggest outgoing and the rent’s actually gone up £140 a month in the last year,” Kayleigh says. “We just have the basic quality of life. It’s just constant anxiety, constant worrying.”
But Kayleigh does not regret going to university, despite the financial strain.
“I absolutely love what I do… When I study, that’s when I’m at my calmest,” she says.
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