The class born to rule has a particular university experience – it involves gowns at dinner, Val d'Isere ski trips and telling everyone how hard they’ve worked to get to where they are. Meanwhile, in the same institutions, is a different student: the ones standing behind a bar pouring the bubbly; the people working themselves into the ground to stay afloat during the second once-in-a-lifetime recession in 14 years.
These are the students knee-deep in financial worry, with some needing to work full-time – and all on top of doing a full-time degree.
As a university student estranged from family, I’ve worked 30 hours a week this academic year, all to sustain myself at a university that provides mouldy accommodation. But I’m one of the lucky ones. I get the maximum student loan and a grant, on top of my £10-an-hour wage working as a bartender. Plus, I just about fall short of working full time hours.
One student I spoke to in Leeds hasn’t been so lucky. They work an average of 39 hours a week in a variety of hospitality jobs just to afford basic costs. “I worry about money and stability,” the student, who requested anonymity to protect their privacy, told me.
University is meant to be the time when you go out and make the best friends of your life, but it hasn’t worked out like that for them: “I have to take annual leave from my paid work to do internships so I never get a break [...] It’s a strain on my relationship with my partner when I can’t attend evening or weekend events.”
Things have only gotten worse as the cost of living skyrockets. “I had to take on more [hours] this year than any other as costs have gone up,” they add. This includes working up to 45 hours some weeks, frequently involving 12-hour days.
“My mental health is pretty lousy,” the student sighs. “I always hoped I’d have more time [to work on my degree] and get stellar grades, but this hasn’t proved possible.”
Research by the Sutton Trust found that “lower-income students” are “more likely to drop out and less likely to graduate with a ‘good’ (a 2:1 or above) degree,” than their wealthier counterparts. In fact, 34 percent of students who are considering dropping out cite mental health as the driving factor.
Simon Bell, a second year Modern Languages and Culture student at Durham University, says he can relate. He works up to 48 hours a week during term time in hospitality. “My mental health is through the cellar floor,” he tells me, which means that he’s had to negotiate “multiple academic concessions”. Still, he says, “my grades have dropped.”
Bell’s parents are high earners, meaning he doesn’t qualify for the maximum student loan of £9,250 – but he currently receives zero financial support from his parents. Right now, he receives the minimum loan of £4,524. His rent comes in at £6,240, with public transport adding another £35 per week spend. Without considering the extraordinary costs of study – such as textbooks – his essential outgoings are exorbitantly higher than his loan income.
“The current student loan system means most students are barely given enough to pay their rent at their end of the month,” Ben McGowan, a student campaigner for University of Manchester Rent Strike, tells me. “It’s simply not enough to live on for so many and, despite the cost of living crisis, students aren’t going to be given any financial support.”
“Already most students were counting every pound in their weekly shop and just about scraping by for the essentials. Now it seems inevitable the cost of living crisis will push thousands of students into poverty.”
Rent takes up around 89 percent of a student’s loan income in London, and over two-thirds in the rest of England, according to a report by the NUS. Given the average food cost for a single adult in the UK is £2,095.60 – significantly more than the remaining 11 percent of any student loan – it’s unsurprising that many have found the system to be financially impossible.
At Greenwich University – home to the highest average rental costs in the country, according to Save The Student’s recent National Accommodation Survey – even the maximum student loan isn’t enough to cover expenses. Sydney Harrison, a second year criminology student at the uni, works around 32 hours per week on top of full-time study. Simply put, she is “tired”.
Harrison says she has “less time to do university work than others”, but adds that “I had to get a job to be able to keep paying my rent.”
“As the student maintenance loan doesn’t cover the cost of living, many students turn to their parents for financial support,” explains Sunday Blake, a trustee at Unite Foundation, a charity that funds estranged and care-experienced students’ accommodation costs. “Those who cannot do this are forced to find part-time work to supplement the maintenance loan.”
This has knock-on effects on their future career, too. “During term time, they are at a disadvantage still in terms of any social mobility potential of their degree; time spent studying, getting involved in volunteer programmes, or taking up leadership positions on campus – which not only helps a student find a community and network but also elevates them as an attractive graduate applicant – is limited due to needing to work.”
“There is very little that institutions are doing to help students understand their workers’ rights,” Blake adds. “Some students’ unions have run awareness campaigns but this is not commonplace across the nations. In fact, many universities actively proscribe part-time work during term-time or ban working over ten hours a week. These rules make it difficult for students to reach out and ask for support if they are being exploited by an employer.”
Kudsia Batool, Head of Equalities and Strategy at the Trades Union Congress, says that “work simply doesn’t pay enough”. The current minimum wage for under 18s stands at a measly £4.81 an hour, and £6.82 an hour for 18–20 year-olds. This isn’t helped by the fact that those studying full-time are not eligible for Universal Credit, while those in part-time higher education are given a smaller allowance if they are under 25.
That means young people must work longer hours to get to the same place as their older counterparts, who themselves are facing high rates of poverty and deprivation. Batool believes this is only going to get worse, with a “17 year pay squeeze” being worsened by 9 percent inflation, which is devaluing wages in real terms. “[We need] decisive action from government to prevent a left behind generation,” she says, pointing towards the need for a higher minimum wage and a ban on zero hours contracts.
Whether it’s rent, food, fuel or tuition – life in the UK is becoming increasingly expensive. No matter how much prozac you pump a generation with, they’ll eventually tire of being treated like the dirt on someone else’s shoe. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for radical change. In the words of Mick Lynch: “We refuse to be poor anymore”.