I recently met with 19 other sabbatical officers to discuss how students are faring with cost of living throughout the country. Many highlighted ongoing struggles with accommodation, food, and access to hardship support. Nonetheless, they were hopeful.
This hope was expressed in anticipation of my invitation to speak at the All-Party Parliamentary Universities Group (APPUG) on October 19. Armed with data and powerful anecdotes, I demonstrated that students are a vulnerable group during this crisis.
Imperial College Union conducted research and identified four student groups that have been hit worst by this crisis:
- Financially Disadvantaged Students – These students are the first in their family to attend university and/or may have a low household income. With cost of living on the rise, families who were previously uncertain in their financial ability to send their children to university may no longer be able to. These students are less likely to participate in Union activities, as they may work alongside their studies to meet essential needs – over the past year, the percentage of bursary recipients undertaking part-time work at Imperial has risen from 26% to 32%.
- International Students – They possess fewer support resources; thus, it is imperative that they have access to and are informed about university hardship funds. 80% of Imperial’s international PhD students state that living in London is more expensive than they had anticipated, exacerbated by their higher fees and transportation costs. This causes unprecedented difficulties in remaining in contact with family. Many international students arrive with their families, making them part of the next vulnerable group we’ve identified.
- Students with Caring Responsibilities – Carers often encounter challenges in finding suitable accommodation because student housing predominantly has rooms unfit for families. Due to the omnipresent impact of the crisis, carers are at an increased risk of low participation and often make financial sacrifices. One parent from Imperial’s PhD Stipend Survey (IPSS) stated they are unable to afford extracurricular activities for their children and avoids travelling to campus for research.
- Students with Disabilities – Imperial PhD students with disabilities spend on average an additional £105 on their monthly expenses. This includes prescriptions, medical equipment, and special food and skincare. For one Imperial student with Coeliac’s, gluten-free alternatives are at least 30% more expensive. Another has a skin condition and reports spending over £50 per month on alternative hygiene products, making prescriptions unaffordable.
A Joined-Up Approach
Imperial College has taken strides in partnering with the Union to respond to the crisis. So far, we’ve achieved:
- A ~£700k increase to the Imperial Bursary from 2024. Meanwhile, the College is fast-tracking £500-grants from the Student Support Fund (SSF). We are also streamlining the Fund’s application, ensuring it is more accessible to students with disabilities.
- An increase to the SSF from £400k to £900k with an increase in the maximum grant from £4000 to £5000 per academic year.
- Matching Imperial’s PhD stipends with the UKRI’s recent increase.
- A one-off payment up to £1000 to staff earning up to £71,264.
- 150 free tickets for the 2022 Summer Ball; the scheme is to be extended.
- A joint working group identifying supportive measures, including a shop selling food staples at bulk-price.
- A full time Advice Service staff member to analyse trends over time.
- A partnership with Blackbullion.
Recommendations for the Government
At the APPUG, I recommended:
- Implementing a Government-wide hardship scheme for all students, regardless of fee status, mirroring the increase in access to hardship funds at universities.
- Reinstating maintenance grants in England.
- Raising NHS bursaries, matching increases by higher education institutions.
- Increasing maintenance loans and their income thresholds in line with inflation. The House of Commons Library found that "the real cut in maintenance support is … just over 11% between 2021/22 and 2022/23, or around £1,100 for those from the poorest households.”
- Providing rent support for students in private housing whilst regulating landlords (e.g., introducing rent caps).
- Increasing discounts for student travel and removing student railcard fees. Imperial student transportation costs have risen by 52.25% between February and August 2022.
- Updating financial requirements and relaxing the cap on part-time work hours for Tier 4 Student Visas to ensure vulnerable students have the means to support themselves through greater flexibility. The latter would also reinvigorate sectors currently facing a national labour shortage.
- Re-evaluating the PhD London weighting (last updated 2003). IPSS indicated that a top up of £5600 p.a. would bring stipends in line with the cost of living in London.
These recommendations are based on directing support where it is most needed.
Universities are stretching budgets to provide direct payments and support to students and staff. Staff are working tirelessly to maintain high quality education and research amidst budget cuts. Students are making their best effort to finish degrees, feed themselves, and support their families.
All we ask is that you meet us halfway.
Nathalie Podder, Deputy President (Welfare), Imperial College Union