As the new academic year begins in St Andrews many students will, for the first time, be dealing with the challenges of independent living and budgeting as a student. As prices continue to rise, priorities shift in response affecting how students balance the maintenance of their social lives, keep up with their academics, and fund the ever-increasing cost of accommodation.
Statistics from the Royal Bank of Scotland’s 2023 Student Living Index shed some light on how these challenges have affected students across the UK. According to the survey, 46% of the 3,052 surveyed university students have found themselves running out of money before the end of the semester (an increase of 11% since 2022), with supermarket shopping the largest monthly expenditure aside from paying rent. Meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Student Cost of Living Insights Study reported that 92% of students were experiencing higher living costs than last year, with 30% taking on new debts and many concerned about how these pressures will affect their studies.
Furthermore, while the RBS survey found an average 54% of students’ monthly income comes from student loans, over half of the participants on the ONS report said these loans were not sufficient to cover basic outgoings. While statistics like these have to be used carefully so as not to conflate pool samples with differing levels of weighting, as a cross section of the student population these figures can be very useful in indicating general trends in the current student experience.
Despite rent price hikes from university accommodation and private landlords in recent years, student loans have not matched rising inflation, with significant disparities in provision across the UK. This academic year, maximum maintenance loans for students increased by 40% in Northern Ireland, 9.4% in Wales, 11.1% in Scotland, and a mere 2.8% in England. Not only that, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) pointed out that in real terms, cuts to student support and use of incorrect inflation forecasts to determine maintenance loan entitlements mean that students from the poorest families could be around £1,500 worse off per year than if the forecasts had been accurate.
Loans are also becoming more of a burden due to the increased cost of international student UK visas, with additional legislation set to take effect on 4 October. As 45% of St Andrews students are international, finding adequate financing, including healthcare with the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS), is a significant pressure many in the community are having to deal with. According to Universities UK (UUK), the cost of student visas grew by 23% compared with June 2022 and increased by 108% compared with the year ending June 2019. Not only is this issue likely to worsen with projections of economic recession in the coming months, but it is further exacerbated by students’ dependence on their grades to safeguard a loan amidst the UCU strikes delaying marking exams.
Professor Steve West CBE, former President of UUK said, “Students risk becoming the forgotten group in the cost of living crisis. We need the government to work with us and provide targeted hardship funding to protect them now, before their living costs become so high that they are unable to keep studying.
“The value of maintenance loans has been steadily eroded. Parents and families are struggling with bills themselves – now they are having to pick up the tab and support their children directly due to declining levels of government support.”
Open discussion about these shared struggles will help focus the search for ad-hoc support in difficult times and strengthen the impetus to find longer term solutions both at individual and wider socio-political levels. Unsurprisingly, money management apps such as Chip and Emma have become increasingly popular, while student-led initiatives such as St Can-drews are providing vital support to the local community.
Beginning last year, the University of St Andrews put a number of measures in place to help students. A designated Cost-of-Living Task Force has collated a series of schemes including negotiating a 75% reduction on Stagecoach bus tickets and offering a 50% discount in university cafes. Last year the student discretionary fund was raised to £1.5 million, but it is not yet clear whether any further increases are planned.
Image: Oliver Keenan