On Friday 4 November, the University of St Andrews sent an email to students detailing the steps which the Students’ Association, together with the University, have been, and will be, taking to aid students as they face the cost of living crisis.
The email was authored by Principal Sally Mapstone, in collaboration with Juan Pablo Rodriguez, the President of the St Andrews Students’ Association, and Emma Craig, the Student Association Director of Wellbeing and Equality.
The announcement noted that “Whilst the University and the Students’ Association cannot solve the crisis, there are steps we can take as institutions, and as one community, to provide practical support, financial help, and information where it is most needed.”
The cost of living crisis has been dominating UK headlines over the past months, caused by a combination of factors. These include a rise in inflation, labour shortages due to Brexit and the global instability brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Together, these factors have resulted in higher petrol, food and energy prices, pushing many households into economic uncertainty.
The advice and support outlined by the University and the Students’ Association covered a variety of categories: travel, money advice and discretionary funds, student employment, financial support for postgraduate students, scholarships and bursaries, financial support for staff, food, community and staying warm.
The impact of the cost of living crisis has been widely felt by students, mainly in relation to the cost of food and energy bills. Beatrice, a fourth-year economics student, told The Saint, “I can’t afford to turn my heating on and when I wake up, I can literally see my breath”.
She continued, “Our last gas bill was £140, and that was including the government aid, so we just can’t imagine what it would be if we did decide to heat the house”
Oriane, also a fourth-year economics student, shared Beatrice’s concerns, “We haven’t turned the heating on because we just don’t have the money to do it”, she said, before adding, “We’ve pushed it to point where we’re actually getting quite sick because of how cold and damp the house is — I sleep in trackies, socks, jumper, and sometimes even a hat, scarf and gloves and I’m still freezing”
In order to address the issues surrounding staying warm, the University has stated that they are “taking steps to ensure that all university buildings are open to all staff and students to allow and encourage the use of communal warm spaces”. These spaces will include communal and study spaces, shower rooms and common kitchen areas.
The University has also acknowledged the rising cost of food , the impact of which has been felt by students. Alex, a 3rd year French and philosophy student, told The Saint, “I’ve definitely noticed a massive increase in food prices. In fact, I was shocked that even the Tesco meal deal prices have increased. I find myself drawn to the reduced section which helps me spend less on food.”
In order to tackle this increased cost, the University has informed students that “All cafés in University buildings are now offering a subsidised 50% discount on hot and cold meal deals”. They added that the University’s Accommodation Conferences and Events (ACE) team are investigating other low-cost meal options which could include “Breakfast in a Bag” whereby students would be offered free fruit and porridge and a “Take it Away, Eat Today” option which would offer food which is at, or close to, its use-by date at no cost.
Financial aid constitutes another touchstone of the University strategy to help those suffering from the cost of living crisis. The University plan to increase the amount of money available through student discretionary funds by over £1.5 million. This money, as stated by the University, “exists to support you [undergraduates and postgraduates] with living and study costs” and reminded students that they “can apply for funding whenever you [they] need it, and as many times as may be necessary”
The financial strain of the cost of living crisis on students in the UK is something which has already been recognised by international governments. Live, a fourth-year Norwegian student told The Saint “Even the Norwegian government has recognised how dire the situation is — they have sent me at least £4000 extra to pay for increased food, rent and utility bills”
According to Live, this is not a wholly positive thing: “In the long run, I’ll have to pay this back, it helps for now but it’s a lot of money to be in debt by”, she said.
With regards to travel, the University have negotiated a deal with the bus company Stagecoach whereby, from mid-November, everyone with a St Andrews email address will be allowed to purchase Stagecoach tickets at a 75% reduced rate, made possible by the subsidisation of ticket prices by the University. According to the University, this scheme “will offer substantially reduced travel costs to all our students and staff across a large area of east-central Scotland”.
Theo, a fourth-year art history student who lives in Dundee, explained to The Saint that, although he believes the measures being put in place are positive, they have come too late,
He said “My flatmates and I have already purchased stagecoach seasonal passes to save money. If the University had thought of these issues earlier, it would have saved Dundee students significant funds”
Theo further noted that these measures do little to address wider concerns about the impact of the cost of living crisis on those living in Dundee, saying “Although this is a solution, it is only a temporary one. This does not address the wider issue of the housing crisis. If we are going to have St Andrews’ students in Dundee in large numbers, we need some university infrastructure here”.
The University has further stated that the University Community Fund (UCF) will play an important role in alleviating the financial pressure placed on those members of the Fife community who are most in need during the cost of living crisis. To enable this, the UCF “will shortly invite bids from local organisations, individuals and charities with a specific focus on projects across the Kingdom which are directly helping local people during the cost of living and energy crisis.”
Principal Sally Mapstone recognised that “this crisis and the escalation in energy prices is exacerbating inequalities and making life hard for so many people”. As a result, she hopes that the UCF “will go some way to helping local organisations and groups at the forefront of delivering support within our communities.”
Lesly Caldwell, the University’s Community Engagement and Social Responsibility Officer, urged local groups to make use of the fund. She said “During this time of particular hardship, we hope that organisations … will apply for grants from this round to help them continue to meet the needs of local people”
She further acknowledged that organisations themselves have suffered the impact of increased energy cost and stated that “we [the University] want to help where we [the University] can, especially as winter and the festive season approaches”
In a report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an independent social change organisation that aims to solve UK Poverty, it was revealed that, as a result of the cost of living crisis, 26% of families with children in Scotland have “cut back on things their child needs, such as food or childcare”.
In Fife, both charities and the council have been involved in efforts to help ease the pressure of soaring energy bills and food prices on people within the community. Fife council has committed to providing over £5 million of additional support and has agreed to provide warm spaces for people to access during the winter months as well as a £50 ‘warm coat’ grant for families with children.
Fife Council have also said that they will continue to support food banks, provide hardship grants, and offer winter warmer packs for people struggling with fuel poverty.
Finally, the University reminded students that “University and Students’ Association budgets are being squeezed very hard by the rise in energy prices and cuts in wider public spending, and the pressure on public funding will increase during the long forecast recession in the UK.”
They concluded “By working together, however, we can be creative within our existing resources to try and increase support in the areas of greatest need”
Commenting on the strategy as a whole, Isabella, a 3rd year history student, said “there’s nothing groundbreaking in this strategy. I feel like there is more the University can do.
She continued. “It’s not very clear how these changes will directly and immediately translate to students at a time where students need clarity”
Hannah, a 3rd year international relations student, echoed Isabella’s sentiment, saying “these changes won’t have a far-reaching impact. These all seem like future plans rather than tangible and immediate action’
“We’re already two months into term and this is not a new problem — the University should have had the foresight to take action earlier”
The Students’ Association have also produced a comprehensive guide to navigating the cost of living crisis which can be accessed at https://www.yourunion.net/support/cost-of-living/
An online form has been released to allow students and staff to submit their feedback and ideas to the University’s Cost of Living Taskforce.
Image: Wikimedia Commons