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Alexis Brown argues that the cost-of-living crisis looms large for students and universities

Each year, the Higher Education Policy Institute and Advance HE survey more than 10,000 students about their experience of higher education. Last year, the survey (conducted in the depths of lockdown in February and March 2021) made for difficult reading, with indicators such as value for money reaching an all-time nadir.

All in all, however, there is a positive story to tell in this year’s Hepi/Advance HE annual Student Academic Experience Survey, with many of the indicators that made an unprecedented fall last year making good progress back to where they were before the pandemic. Value-for-money indicators in particular have bounced back, with 35 per cent saying their course was ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value for money after reaching an unprecedented low of 27 per cent last year. And the percentage of students who thought their course was ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ value has fallen from 44 per cent to 32 per cent, not far off the 31 per cent it was before the pandemic.

But not all the news was encouraging. In part because of the isolation caused by the pandemic, for the first time this year we also asked students about loneliness, and found that they tend to be much lonelier than the general population. For example, 23 per cent of students feel lonely ‘most’ or ‘all of the time’, compared with only 5 per cent of the general population who report that they feel lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’. Feeling lonely all or most of the time is a particular problem for Black students (31 per cent), LGB+ students (30 per cent), students with a disability (36 per cent) and trans students (47 per cent).

Loneliness and anxiety

Loneliness is strongly correlated to a host of mental health issues, and this data shows that it is clearly not an issue that affects all students equally. But there are activities universities can undertake to help combat loneliness and build cohesion within and across cohorts of students. The UPP Foundation’s Student Futures Commission, for example, recommended that universities offer an induction programme for each year of study rather than just the first one. Activities such as these can help build a sense of belonging among students, especially those who may have begun their studies during the pandemic.

Other wellbeing indicators are also concerning. Even though students are now about as happy as they were before the pandemic, the survey showed anxiety levels remain worryingly high. Only 14 per cent of students reported low anxiety, in comparison with 13 per cent during this time in lockdown last year. Anxiety levels were reflected in some of the open-text feedback on the survey as well; one student noted how the impacts of their anxiety had seeped into their academic performance: “My anxiety has made it challenging to be as productive as I want to be.”

The financial pressures of day-to-day life may contribute to this anxiety for some students; the survey shows that students are more than twice as concerned about the cost of living while at university than they are about tuition fees. We asked for the first time this year why students chose to take on employment during study, and those from state school backgrounds were 14 percentage points more likely than those from private schools to take on employment to supplement their living costs. Many students will struggle to balance these financial pressures with their full-time studies. One student noted that they “struggle financially because I have not been able to do more than 12 hours per week [of a] paid job to provide support for my family due to the way that the timetable is structured”.

For all of these reasons, the cost-of-living crisis looms large over this year’s results—not just because of the impact that it will have on students, but because of the impact it will have on universities and their ability to offer student-support services.

Resources under pressure

Many of the things students point to in the survey—for example, wanting faster feedback, more mental health support—are directly tied to how much resource universities have to spend on them. These resources have already been under pressure. In 2020, the Office for Students estimated that there was a deficit of at least around £1,000 for every student (more for Stem subjects), and that was before inflation started to rise. With the fee now frozen until 2024/25, inflation will only erode this unit of resource further. This is not just an English issue, either; Universities Scotland has noted that its unit of resource has fallen by £869 per student since 2014/15. To sustain educational quality and student support, there will have to be an increase in overall grant funding available, especially as the demographic of 18-year-olds rises.

If next year’s allocation for strategic priority grant funding is any indication, however, this support may not be forthcoming. On the same day that the Hepi/Advance HE survey was published, the OfS announced its funding for the 2022/23 academic year, showing that overall funding for student transitions and mental health will remain the same as this year, at £15 million. Similarly, student-hardship funding has now been rolled into the overall premium to support successful student outcomes and will remain stagnant between this year and next.

As the cost-of-living crisis bites students, it is only a matter of time before the government finds itself under pressure to increase this support. Failing to get ahead of the issue will not only be bad for students; it will also leave an opening for the government opposition to capitalise on as the next election draws nearer.

Alexis Brown is director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight