Cost of living: university students at ‘breaking point’ and fear they can’t afford to live as rent prices soar

A third year undergraduate student said she is left with £20 a week to live on after paying her rent

University students are afraid they won’t be able to afford to live this winter due to soaring rent costs.

Kelsey Trevett, a third year University of Oxford student, told NationalWorld that it is a “really terrifying time to be a student” and he is “scared about how to get through the year” due to the cost of living crisis.

Mr Trevett said despite his maintenance loan increasing by 2.3%, his rent has been raised by 5.4% meaning the loan “in no way reflects rising rent, energy, and food costs”.

Eleanor Wade, another third year undergraduate student at the University of Winchester, said her rent takes up around two-thirds of her maintenance loan leaving her with about £20 a week to live on - even though it is “the best deal” she could get through her university for housing and bills.

She said she has “struggled massively” during the entirety of her studies, working a zero-hour contract job and “constantly in debt”. Kelsey said it is imperative that students are included in cost of living conversations.

‘The maximum loan is well below national living wage’

Ms Wade said she has “struggled massively the entire time” she has been at university as living costs in Winchester are on par with London.

Despite working during her studies, she said as a student she is usually only offered zero hours contracts meaning she is either “under or over worked”.

She told NationalWorld: “I get the maximum loan (outside of London) which means the government is aware my family aren’t able to subsidise me, which is the expectation hence the tier system. However the maximum loan is well below the national living wage, and my rent often takes up 2/3 of my loan, leaving me with about £20 a week to live on.”

Ms Wade said she is “constantly in debt and paying things off” and “it is awful how students are always left out of cost of living conversations.”

She added: “We have the financial responsibilities of an adult, but with the social view from older adults that we are children.

“I am fully financially independent and still live below the poverty line, including my wages from work, whilst studying in my final year of university full time.”

Ms Wade said that her rent is even higher this year and she has been forced to take out short term loans to afford her living costs.

Her maintenance loan is £9,000 per year, meaning she gets £3,000 per semester, but her rent and bills come to £2,000 in total.

She explained: “The issue is that I have had to take out loans to help me for last year, in which I had an awful landlord and was paying £500 a month of rent for a rat infested house, and my bills came to £600 a month on average. That meant per semester I was paying £2,400 out of my £3,000 loan, so I was left with £200 a month to live from.

“As I have had so little money, it means I have had to take out short term loans, meaning I always owe £500 at the start of every semester, as well as any other debts I owe, so I am left this semester with about £300. It’s not great!

“The sad part is, I am probably given the best deal I can get through my university for housing and bills, and it still takes up two-thirds of my loan.”

‘This year is by far the most difficult’

Mr Trevett said his living costs have also shot up this year but the 2.3% maintenance loan increase is “drastically inadequate” to cover rising rent, energy and food prices.

He said: “Living on maintenance loans has always been tricky, compounded by the static household income thresholds in a fundamentally unfair means-tested system. But with food and energy prices spiralling, and no support whatsoever for students, I’m really scared about how to get through the year.

“It’s a further kick in the teeth to know that these inadequate maintenance loans are just that, loans, and I’ll have to pay them back, alongside interest.”

The third year University of Oxford student said his rent has increased by 5.4% at Trinity College while other Oxford colleges “have made far greater increases”.

He explained: “This has left me with rent of £5000 pre-bills in a flat of four for nine months.

“It’s a really terrifying time to be a student, and I don’t in any way feel that my university has grasped the scale of the problem we’re facing.”

What is the situation students are facing?

Isi Williams, Vice President Community, Edinburgh University Students’ Union, told NationalWorld that a student survey revealed 18% of students were paying more than £800 per month for their accommodation.  According to the same study, the average annual rent is above £7,200, which would account for over 92% of the maximum Scottish student loan of £7,750.

She said: “This leaves students facing the worst hardship with just £10.57 a week to pay for food, clothing, transport, bills and educational supplies. As the study was done over a year ago, students are likely to be much worse off now, despite needing to absorb the extra costs of food and energy bills.”

Ms Williams is now working on creating a “community food pantry” to help elevate food poverty among students and “reduce isolation caused by financial difficulties”. She said both the University and the government have a responsibility to tackle these issues to ensure the future of accessible education.

A National Union of Students (NUS) spokesperson added that students are at “breaking point” and its research shows that “one in three have just £50 to live on each month after paying rent and bills.”

The union fears that “no amount of budgeting and saving is going to stop students from falling into poverty this autumn.”

The spokesperson said: “To tackle this crisis ministers need to urgently and dramatically increase the level of maintenance support on offer to students, bring back non-repayable grants, and step in to take control of soaring rent, energy and transport costs.”

Meanwhile Richard Ward, Head of Research, StuRents added: “The energy crisis is touching all households nationwide and students are no different. The rising cost of utilities will squeeze those not on bills-inclusive contracts even further, which is likely to negatively impact their broader university experience.

“Due to the method by which maintenance loan increases are calculated (these are based on inflation forecasts with the 2022 value estimated back in 2020), the maximum entitlement is set to increase by just 2.3% this year, compared to inflation of ~10%. This has resulted in a real-term reduction in students’ income. Such reductions go against government policy, which is in place to prevent such declines.”