The ticking time bomb of student hardship UPDATE

The worsening situation of increasing numbers of students coming under financial pressure and hardship is moving on fast.  The defensive campaign for help seems to be advancing slowly by crawling while under fire.  Yet advancing it is. 

Two more reports on students have been released since the TEFS post last week.  The most significant is the result of a survey of 8,800 students by the Russell Group Student Unions. Their ‘Student Cost-of-Living Report’ is shocking and you have to pinch yourself when realising that it emerged from the elite Russell Group of universities.  It is truly a disgrace that the most able and talented students of a generation find themselves going without food and struggling to find the time to study.  With half unsure they have enough money to survive and 25% going without food, there is a sense that something has to give soon.  Maintenance loans next year will not be enough to combat inflation with a meagre 2.8% uplift. No maintenance grants are available and the problem is eating into even the better off families. If we want a country driven by the ‘white heat’ of advanced technology, then supporting the talent required through essential education would seem obvious. It should not be a p[reserve of the most well off.

Looking back a short way.

Also, out this week is a report from London Higher on the experience of students in London based upon the 2022 HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey.  Although using data from over a year ago, it too confirms that the situation was already deteriorating. 

This was a comprehensive UK wide survey with responses from 10,142 students overall. It is noted that there are 507,470 students in London, but its is not clear how many in London were in the survey. It is a comprehensive annual survey and probably the best indication of the state of play. The 2023 report will be available in June 2023.

Although the report concentrates mostly on factors affecting the overall student experience and satisfaction, financial concerns surface.  Overall, in the UK, 52% of students indicated the cost of living was a major concern. But perhaps surprisingly, in London only 38 % of students say this was an issue for them.  This is intriguing. But it is telling that on ‘Factors affecting sense of belonging’, 17% cited, “Flexibility from my institution to help me manage my non-academic responsibilities – e.g., caring, childcare, employment, commuting”. Whilst not delving into the numbers of students in paid employment and the number of hours devoted to this, 70% of those under 21 who worked were doing so to supplement their living costs.

The writing was on the wall a long time ago.

Over at least ten years, there has been a rising problem of students struggling with living costs and losing substantial time from studies through part-time jobs.  This was bound to be exacerbated in a period of higher inflation. TEFS has regularly highlighted this issue over several years and the likelihood of it getting worse this year was set out last July in, ‘Student hardship: it’s going to be a cold winter’.  It’s fast becoming too late to retrieve the situation.

Original post.

Time is running out for an increasing number of students across the UK as the seriousness of the financial crisis they face is turning into a harsh reality. With more resorting to sex and drugs and part-time jobs, the clock is ticking as they weigh up the cost of balancing earning money with making time for study. It seems the universities themselves are also waking up to the dangers and are looking for a way out. But time is the resource we cannot make any more of.

Recent weeks have seen a series of survey results asking the question about how difficult the financial situation is for students across the UK. They are all pointing in the same direction.

The first mainstream media reports emerged this week with ‘Cost of living: ‘I skip university lectures to do paid work instead’ – BBC News. Yet the problem has been around for over ten years at least and many students, past and present, would see this as very old news. I discovered in 2020 that universities were not able to say how many students were working part-time despite evidence that it was a substantial number (see ‘University students who work part-time need support – or they will drop out’ | Mike Larkin | The Guardian). It seems it only becomes news when reality hits the better off.

Time is of the essence.

TEFS has campaigned for students to be given equal study time to even the odds for those finding they must work long hours. This divide for those with time and those without enough time makes for a ‘two tier’ system (see TEFS links in the footnote).  Measuring the time students spend commuting or in part-time work should be replaced with a measure of time available. Then, with a pledge to support students at a level that keeps hours in jobs to a sensible limit so everyone gets equal time to study. Yet, despite ‘advice’ from most universities to limit working hours to no more than fifteen hours per week, many exceed this on a regular basis, often to over the accepted full-time employment of thirty hours per week.

ONS survey data revealed an old problem.

The first widespread indication of the rising crisis in 2023 came when the media reported that Office for National Statistics (ONS) had released the results of its survey, ‘Cost of living and higher education students, England: 30 January to 13 February 2023’ at the end of February.  The outcome was not very surprising since warnings had been emerging throughout 2022 (see TEFS 15th July 2022 ‘Student hardship: it’s going to be a cold winter). A total of 229,475 higher education students in England were contacted by the ONS and 0.9% (2,065) responded. An alarming 91% worried about the cost of living and 49% were in financial difficulty.  This translated into 78% reporting that it was affecting their studies.

Despite the relatively low uptake for the survey, the questions were far reaching and comprehensive.  Delving into the dataset revealed that 30% had increased the number of hours spent in paid work.  This can only impact even more on studies and success. With 21% turning to crime, 16% stealing to get essentials and 5% stealing to sell on items, we have only to fear what is becoming of our society.

Next came more shocks with 10% taking to drug dealing, 7% in sex work and 6% in ‘adult’ industries. The list goes on and it is perhaps not surprising since only 51% felt they could turn to their family for support. The assumption that families will support their children is the main plank upon which the government bases its policies. That is looking naïve and very shaky indeed. To paraphrase the Ian Drury song, its become ‘Sex and Drugs and Part-time Jobs’.

Hardship support.

Yet in the middle of all of this mayhem, only 11% had applied to their university hardship fund.  After getting into financial tribulation, and resorting first to more work, and even criminality, it seems this is the very last resort. I have found that students are reluctant admit to the university they have a problem or to ask for what they see as charity.  They prefer to stay self-sufficient with many better off families not helping either.  This means the problems of students often sit in the ‘blind spot’ of the universities middle class vision. 

Despite anticipating a greater demand on hardship funds, most universities set a high ‘proof of hardship’ bar to accessing funds, often when it is too late (explained by TEFS 26th August 2020). It is assumed that this is most likely to affect a minority of students and they can often be forgotten. After all, in the past, TEFS reported that ‘The vast majority – one million – of students have no employment when in full-time studies’ (TEFS 27th July 2018). 

Missing a trick.

Despite being comprehensive and authoritative, the ONS missed an important question. The students were not asked directly how many hours they were working part-time or if the had trouble finding work. They might be forgiven for simply assuming that most students were not working part-time. However, this is not the case as TEFS reported last year. Before the pandemic the various data indicated that around 60% of students did not have part-time jobs in the term time. There are two good sources of information on the state of the student part-time employment market from Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Advance HE/Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) annual student experience survey (see TEFS 15th July 2022 ‘Student hardship: it’s going to be a cold winter’).

The impact of the pandemic lockdowns.

Back in April 2021, TEFS reported the effect was probably less than feared in ‘Pandemic student employment: Over 75,000 lose jobs but job market survives collapse’.   By the summer of 2022, it became apparent that a smaller proportion of students had jobs during the previous academic year but those in work were on average working longer hours.  It seems we are now moving into an era of more working and also doing so for longer hours.

There are other survey providers who did not miss a trick.

Every recent survey of students is pointing to a mounting crisis for a sizeable number of students.  In early February, the Save the Student ‘National Student Accommodation Survey 2023’ results must have set alarm bells ringing on the rising costs.  In January, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for students launched its ‘Inquiry into the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on students’.  The urgency was reflected in a response deadline of 27th February and the National Union of Students and Universities UK were quick off the mark in their responses.

More recently, the student finance organisation Blackbullion, released its ‘Student Money & Wellbeing 2023 Report’.  Although less reported, this is a comprehensive survey covering in more detail student testimonies and the impact of hours working on student attainment. It is not a comfortable read but makes the most convincing case so far.

Then, this week the Sutton Trust waded in with evidence in polling and  ‘Student voices: The cost of living crisis’. They had already issued a stern warning in January with, ‘Drop-out crisis looms if students are not supported through crisis’.

Are more students dropping out?

The simple answer is yes. But the numbers have not increased to a deluge at this point.  The Student Loan Company (SLC) has in recent years provided ‘in year updates’ on student withdrawals. The most recent data up to December 2022 showed an increase to 6,302 from  5,870 in pre-pandemic 2018/19.  Oddly, the numbers decline as the pandemic lockdowns took hold and were only 5,448 at the same time in 2020/21. It seems working online lessened the pressure on some students. The next data release up to the end of February will be out on the 30th of March 2023 and this might be more telling. However, the proportion of the total student cohort dropping out from the loans is still very low.

My experience is that students tend to soldier on and not drop out unless the situation becomes technically impossible. Even when advised to call it a day, many opt to carry on. More concerning is the impact on success in the course and failure to complete assignments and pass examinations. This can only appear much later in the year in the progression data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) as its ‘Non-continuation: UK Performance Indicators’.

Revealing the blind spot.

Jobs during the academic year are often the only way some students can make up the financial shortfall that is built into the loans system.  But this is still a critical ‘blind spot’ (TEFS 16th June 2020 ‘University student part-time working is a dangerous blind spot in universities’) even though it adversely impacts academic success. Acknowledgement of the impact this has on the success of students is not addressed in universities enough to make a difference. Maybe  something radical will be done to foster equality and fairness.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


TEFS has particularly highlighted the situation with excessive hours in part-time jobs. More recently in July with, ‘Student hardship: it’s going to be a cold winter’. The evidence of a ‘two tier’ system, dividing those with time and resources from those with little of both, is overwhelming as illustrated here.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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