Students in the UK face working multiple jobs and even visiting food banks in the coming academic year as rising inflation erodes the value of loans and grants.
A fifth of students say they’ll have to take on two jobs when universities start up again from September, according to a survey of 1,500 students by recruitment website Breakroom. Maintenance loans that students can apply for from the government are set to be the lowest in real terms in seven years, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies.
“We’re hearing from students who are working multiple jobs to make ends meet, who can’t even afford to travel to their university library, and who are cutting back on cooking food due to spiraling energy costs,” a spokesperson for the National Union of Students said by email. “Our research has shown that thousands more are relying on food banks and buy now, pay later loans.”
While students have always had to scrape by, the surge in inflation hits them especially hard because maintenance loans are fixed while living costs surge. Most won’t be compensated by the kind of pay raises being pushed for by people in full-time employment.
It’s one more example of how those surviving on the lowest amount of money will bear the brunt of rising food and energy prices. The UK government, currently embroiled in a battle to choose the next prime minister, is under pressure to increase support for low income households or risk a surge in poverty.
Undergraduates in England can apply for a loan to cover living expenses that’s calculated based on family income and whether they plan to live at home during their studies. The maximum loan for those from low-income households studying in London is currently £12,667 ($15,000), about £1,000 short of the minimum living cost in the city, according to University College London estimates.
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The costs are also mounting for those attending university outside of the capital because items such as rent and food, where inflation is hitting the hardest, make up the bulk of student spending. Aminah Memon, a student at the University of Oxford, worked all summer in case she needs to supplement her loan and the scholarship she receives for being from a low-income household.
“I’ll have to be more conscious than last year and always be planning ahead,” said Memon, who doesn’t drink or go clubbing. “My flatmates and I have also decided to share weekly shopping and meal prep to split costs.”
Students also face higher interest payments on their loans when they graduate, although they don’t have to start paying the debt back until they are earning over £27,295 a year. The government recently said it would cap interest on loan repayments at 6.3%.
The government has “continued to increase support for living costs on an annual basis for students from the lowest-income households since the start of the pandemic, and they now have access to the largest ever amounts in cash terms,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Education.
There are already signs that the surging costs are changing behavior. The education charity UCAS says it has recorded a drop in the distances students are planning to travel to get to higher education, indicating many are choosing to stay at home. Clare Marchant, who runs the charity, is concerned many potential students will opt not to go into higher education at all.
Olivia Gilbert, who starts a postgraduate degree in the capital in September, says she’s thinking about taking on daytime work as a nanny and evening work in bars and clubs.
“Trying to fit my studies and just general self-care around that is going to be very difficult and will definitely negatively impact my academic ability,” Gilbert said. “I’ve never had to work two jobs before this.”