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Students Are at Breaking Point

The cost of living crisis is forcing students to choose between paying rent and buying food. They need targeted support – and an end to a profit-driven university system that treats them as cash cows.

When reliance on an overdraft has become the norm, it is clear students are crying out for cost of living support. (Tim Gouw / Unsplash)

As we enter this summer, students are at breaking point.

When it comes to hearing what students are talking about, as Vice-President for Higher Education at the National Union of Students, I’m in a privileged position. Day in, day out, students are sharing heart-breaking stories with me. I spoke to someone whose landlord put up their rent mid-contract, and they’re now going hungry because they’re having to cut back on cooking as energy bills skyrocket.

Another student—who is in receipt of the maximum maintenance loan—told me how she’s currently working three jobs alongside her studies. Despite this, she can’t afford to buy course materials, and is quitting therapy because she’s not able to afford the bus journey to and from sessions. A third said to me that thanks to rising costs, their choice was simple—either they eat, or they get increasingly expensive public transport into university.

These are only a few examples. Over 450 have shared their stories with the NUS, and all too frequently we’re hearing from students who are living paycheck to paycheck, visiting foodbanks, and unable to socialise with friends. How can that be right?

When reliance on an overdraft has become the norm, it is clear students are crying out for cost of living support. Having heard these testimonies, we were incredibly disappointed—though not surprised—that there was nothing for us in the Chancellor’s cost of living announcement last month. By announcing a £300 cost of living payment to eight million pensioner households, we know that the government are able and willing to offer some targeted support—as limited as that support may be to meet the spiralling prices of fuel and food facing ordinary people. But just because students don’t make up the typical Tory voter base shouldn’t mean all help is withheld.

Research released earlier this week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that the real-terms value of maintenance loans has fallen to a historic low, thanks in part to outdated predicted inflation figures back in 2020. That means that next year, for the first time since 2003/04, the maximum maintenance loan entitlement will fall more than £1,000 short of what a twenty-two-year-old student would earn if they worked in a job that paid the National Minimum Wage instead of studying. Whether this is the case because of political negligence or ideology doesn’t make much difference to second-year student struggling because they don’t know whether they’ll be able to eat this week.

Instead of intervening, the government are pushing ahead with changes to student loans which, according to the Treasury’s own analysis, will cost students and graduates an extra £35 billion over the next five years. Not only will these reforms cost lower- and middle-earning graduates an extra £54,000 on average over the course of their careers, according to financial services company AJ Bell, but they’ll also disproportionately discourage those from working-class and marginalised communities from entering higher education.

Going further down their warped rabbit hole, they’re capping interest rates on student loans at 7.3 percent and claiming this represents ‘a fair deal for students’—all despite the fact that this is over five times higher than the UK base interest rate, and considerably more than average mortgage rates. Simply put, they’re treating us like cash cows.

We need urgent help. The government need to announce a student cost of living payment. They must immediately reverse the stealth cuts to maintenance loans, re-introduce grants for the most vulnerable, and unfreeze the parental earnings threshold that governs eligibility for means-tested maintenance support. Rent costs were soaring prior to spiraling inflation; six months ago we published research with Unipol which highlighted student accommodation costs had increased by sixteen percent in the past three years. Housing is often the largest outgoing for students, so we desperately need rent caps to stop these rising costs eating further into our already stretched budgets.

My two-year period at NUS draws to close at the end of this month, and I’ll admit that it has often felt exhausting campaigning for piecemeal reform in a higher education system which was never built for students. But I know that we owe it to those who are suffering right now to do everything within our power to fight for tangible improvements.

We also know that students are desperate for something radically different to this profit-driven model, and we owe it to the students of the future to campaign for an education system which is fully funded, lifelong, and accessible for all.

That’s why we’ve organised a youth and student bloc at tomorrow’s TUC rally in London. We can’t keep bearing the brunt of the government’s regressive agenda, which leaves millions exposed to hardship. Instead, we need a truly transformative deal for students—an alternative to the broken education system, an alternative to soaring prices, and an alternative to a government that simply refuses to listen.