The festive period is feeling a little different this year. As the wintery nights draw in and the end of the year encroaches, it’s a little less cozy nights and fairy lights and a little more layering jumpers and growing energy bills as the UK finds itself in a Cost of Living crisis.
The government’s attempt to elevate the strain of unprecedented electricity costs came in the form of a £400 bill cut to electricity bills throughout the coldest winter months, equating to £60 per month. For larger households, whose annual electricity costs could be £1630, according to EDP Energy approximates, this is fractional support.
UK students are being severely neglected in this crisis. In addition to typically occupying larger, older houses that require more energy to power and heat, the government’s advice and support have been notably remiss regarding students. As the pandemic, the Ukraine War, and now the Cost of Living crisis escalate national inflation, students also face living on government loans which have failed to keep up with inflation rates.
The impact of this is stark. According to the National Union of Students, 68% of students are unable to afford course materials. The Guardian found that 9% of students are working 21-30 hours per week alongside full-time study, well over the 15-hour-per-week average recommended by most UK universities to balance work and life healthily. The same study found that a further 11% of students were working over 31 hours per week alongside their studies.
To explicate the scale of the issue facing UK students, I compared the living situations of those studying in 2016 to students today, using the city of Nottingham as an example. Nottingham’s universities are attended by over 60,000 students, the second largest student population of any city in the UK.
In 2016, the maximum maintenance loan offered to students living independently and outside of London was £8,200. When put into an inflation calculator, that loan would have the purchasing power equivalent to £10,560.57 today. Having failed to increase with the roughly 4.31% inflation which has occurred over the past six years, the maximum equivalent loan offered to the students of 2022 is a thousand pounds less, at just £9,488.
Besides the increased costs created by the national power crisis, student renters face the additional impact of the ongoing housing crisis. Paying for somewhere to live close to their place of study dominates students’ budgets; in July, the NuS found that a third of students are left with less than £50 to live off after paying their rent, a figure which excludes the cost of household bills.
I’ll bring in our example city of Nottingham here; according to an article by Impact Nottingham, 2016’s student rents sat at an average of £80 per student per week. I took an average from the first 18 four-bed properties currently listed on a competitive student accommodation provider’s website to calculate an average price for 2023-24 tenancies, which worked out at £157.61 per student per week. This rate is £57 more per week than if that price were to have inflated organically with the pound. While these prices included the cost of bills, this is an increase just shy of 200%. This means that the average student living in Nottingham today will pay double the rent of their 2016 counterparts, subsidised by a government loan which is, in real terms, around £1000 smaller.
Numbers can be alienating. Focusing on inflation and percentages can also detract from the most important aspect of this Cost of Living crisis; the experience of students themselves.
Tom, Daria, and Thanos are current students of Nottingham Trent University. They shared with me how their experience studying and living in the city has been impacted by the UK’s current crisis.
Thanos studies BA in Filmmaking and has been living and studying in Nottingham since 2016, receiving student income support from the US and the UK throughout those years. He has rented the same two-bed house with his brother throughout his studies, choosing to live away from the majority of the city’s student population in a cheaper residential area to avoid the price hikes associated with student renting. ‘I’ve actually noticed that, since about two years ago, more students have started moving here because it’s cheaper, even though it’s further away from town [and university]’. Inevitably, demand has increased costs. ‘Some friends of ours moved onto this street, just because it was the cheapest street they could find to rent on. But this summer, me and my brother’s rent has increased by £200. So, for two bedrooms, that’s £100 more each month. I was questioning whether to move to another part of Nottingham because I felt like it was getting too expensive. I don’t think that’s because my landlord is taking me for a ride, though. It’s still significantly cheaper than living in town, which is where most Nottingham Trent University Students live.’
Between 2016 and 2022, Thanos witnessed significant changes in university social dynamics. ‘In 2016, it felt like there was a lot more going out. I guess that’s a result of being younger, and wanting to experience nightlife for the first time, but I was also able to go to the cinema more often then. I’ve noticed that it’s a lot more difficult to go out and socialise. Although I don’t remember exactly how much I was spending [on my rent and living costs] in year one, it was definitely less than I’m spending now. Even in grocery shops, I’m now spending about forty pounds a week, whereas I used to spend that in a month- or, at least, that’s what it felt like.’
But even when Thanos gets together with friends, the conversation has evolved too; ‘I’ve never really experienced this many people complaining about money so much. In 2016, I was young, I didn’t really know how to handle money, but no one ever really talked about it, and no one really thought it was an issue. Now I take the time to manage money properly, but it still feels like it’s running out quicker than ever. Maybe I don’t manage money 100% well, and maybe the people around me don’t either, but things have still become a lot more financially stressful lately.’
While Thanos’ course supplies most of his equipment, the BA Filmmaking course’s final project is self-funded, which has generated the challenge of balancing living costs with producing a high-quality outcome for his degree. ‘We just had a group meeting the other day where we were speaking about how we’re going to raise money and how much we’re personally willing to put into the project. I worked the whole summer so I’m happy to chip in a little bit, but I still need to pay rent and live here. Working out which money is going towards my course is really difficult at the moment.’
Tom, Thanos’ coursemate, added that; ‘at the beginning of every year the university recommended buying a storage drive for projects, just to save your laptop’s hard drive. The one they recommended was £100, but I obviously couldn’t afford that.’ Tom has been experimenting with stop motion animation this year, and wouldn’t have been able to afford the ‘paper and card and plasticine’ necessary if it wasn’t for a £100 supply budget offered to all arts students at his university.
Tom lives with Daria, a Product Design student. Although Tom plans to reuptake part-time work next year to make up the £200 deficit between his government loan and the cost of their rent, Daria does not have this option. ‘It would be really good to work, maybe even full-time, but as an international student, I can’t. I think international students can work no more than 20 hours per week if they come from countries outside the EU- Asia, Russia,’ Daria says. She added that international students have been given no specific help nor advice from the university with regard to coping with the cost of living increases. Without a government loan nor the right to work, she, and others with international status, has been left to depend on her parents, which has also impacted her relationship with the university; ‘my dad accidentally underpaid my fees a little bit this year and immediately, two weeks later, I was unenrolled, without warning nor reason. It happened when the Cost of Living crisis was just starting, but I don’t think this case was treated with any particular care [because of the crisis.]’
Tom, Daria, and Thanos are due to graduate next year and feel ‘quite lucky’ to have been able to attend university when they did. ‘Costs have gone up hugely,’ says Tom, ‘I think if we’d gone to university a year or two years after, we might be in real trouble because next year is going to be awful.’
Feature image by Towfiqu Barbhuiya on Unsplash.