When 18-year-old Hannah Simmons accepted her offer to study English at Manchester University, she was elated. Now, as a new term dawns, she’s questioning whether she's made the right decision.
Hannah is one of a steady stream of young people reassessing their desire to go to university this year. While worrying that uni is too pricey isn’t unusual (there's student debt to think about, and sometimes it feels easier to just get a job) the whole endeavour is quickly becoming expensive to the point of being genuinely unaffordable. The seemingly endless cost of living crisis and renting crisis, coupled with stories of debt rising because of higher interest rates, has only reinforced this view.
All of this has had a knock-on effect: In February, a National Student Accommodation Survey found that 80 percent of students were worried about rising energy costs, while an estimated 62 percent of students said that their mental health has suffered as a result of the cost of living. Meanwhile, a recent poll from Indeed found that 32 percent of A-level students would prefer to go straight into an entry level job, due to fears surrounding current costs.
“I know I’m not expected to pay off my full loan,” says Hannah. “But paying for food, energy bills, rent and finding a place to rent is too expensive.” While she’s still going ahead for now (“I haven’t got another back up plan”), Hannah is planning on picking up some part-time work at a supermarket to keep her going.
At Manchester University, where student halls are reportedly in short supply, Hannah is also having to rent a separate house with other freshers, with bills not included in the rent. “I have no idea how, or if I can control how much I’m spending,” she says.
Alice, 25, is about to go into her final year of a PhD in Social Sciences. But the amount she's having to spend currently just isn't feasible in the long term. For the most part, she's been using local food banks to get through – – she asked us not to share her surname so that people don’t know she’s using them. She says doesn't know if there will ever be a time when she isn’t using a food bank. “On top of all of the stresses involved in what will hopefully be the last year of my PhD, like my dissertation, completing my thesis, I now have the additional stress of ‘will I be able to afford to finish it?’ she says.
“It’s exhausting having all of these additional stressors and not being able to do anything meaningful about it,” Alice adds.
While doing a PhD is something she’s wanted to do for a while, she says, “the pressures caused by the cost of living crisis have made me question whether it’s worth it right now, because I’m having to cut back on so many elements of my life, which makes life harder, and also having to take on additional work, which leaves less time for my PhD itself.”
The ripple effect of the cost of living crisis on students isn't imaginary. Figures published by the National Union for Students (NUS) and housing charity Unipol found that student rents have risen by a whopping 61 percent since 2011/12, and 16 percent since 2018/19. Meanwhile, swathes of students could be barred from getting a student loan if they don't get high enough maths and English GCSE grades – another move guaranteed to put low income students off even applying.
“It makes everything seem useless,” says Lucy Yates, who’s in her final year of uni studying Geography at Sussex University. While she was initially optimistic about the salary she could gain after graduation, she now doesn’t feel like the past two years have been worth it. For her final year, she’s moved back in with her parents because of financial pressures, primarily to save on the cost of renting that comes with student accommodation.
“If all these changes happened a few years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go to university,” says Lucy. She says she feels quite “naïve”, adding: “I could have applied via another route and I’d be on the same path as I am now – it might have taken longer, but at this point, that doesn’t make a difference.”
For Beth Gibbs, 18, from Manchester, going to university has always felt like a distant, unattainable dream. Instead, she'll be opting for an apprenticeship at a communications firm. She comes from a low income household, and wouldn't have even considered uni. “Of course it shouldn’t be like that – it should be something to look forward to, something accessible, doable,” she says. “[But] It didn’t feel right at the start.”
She's spent the last week or so scrolling through a constant feed of her friends moving all over the country. But it hasn't made her envious. “I’d say I’m fairly confident I’ve made the right choice,” she says. “I’m earning money as I go along – and will eventually be on the same path as a graduate, earning the same money, just with a bit of training.” She says that she hasn’t missed the social aspect. “Yes, things might have been different – but to be honest, I don’t think university would have been a viable option for me.”
Again, while loans are supposed to cover the costs for low income students, they're now simply not enough. “Although tuition fees are still covered in full by loans, the same can't be said for living costs,” says Tom Allingham, Head of Editorial at Save the Student.
“In the space of two years, the monthly shortfall that students have had to make up has almost doubled,” he adds. According to the National Student Money Survey 2022, a UK-wide survey of over 2,300 university students, the average maintenance loan now falls short of living costs by £439 every single month – up from a £340 shortfall in 2021 and £223 shortfall in 2020.
Neither universities nor – crucially – the government appears to be stepping in to address these concerns and put real plans in place to support students who are financially struggling. “The onus is on the government to offer specialised support for students,” says Allingham. “Tax and benefit reforms may help the general population, but as the majority of students don't pay tax and can't receive benefits, extra intervention is needed.”
Aside from getting a degree, uni is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be a time for meeting new mates, learning how to live as an adult, setting yourself up for your life ahead. You’re not meant to be freaking out 24/7 or having to pick up multiple side hustles if you’re unlucky enough to not be payrolled by wealthy parents.
But until things change, drastically, uni is looking more and more like a pathway only for the narrowing group of people who can actually afford it.