One in five Russell Group university students consider quitting due to the cost of living crisis, and a quarter regularly forgo food and other essentials, Observer can reveal.
In the largest study of its kind, a new study by Russell Group Students’ Unions – which represents 24 of Britain’s most elite higher education institutions, including Oxbridge, UCL and Edinburgh – reveals for the first time the devastating impact of rising prices on all but the wealthiest students.
More than half of those surveyed said their academic performance had deteriorated as a result of the cost of living crisis. Students reported having to take extra paid work to cover costs, having trouble concentrating due to poor nutrition and financial stress, and missing lectures because they couldn’t afford travel tickets.
The researchers said if urgent action is not taken, the damage caused by the crisis could lead to universities being “open only to the most privileged”, undoing decades of progress in expanding access to higher education.
Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, denounced the “disturbing” arrangements, which he expects will worsen, and urged the government to take urgent action on Wednesday’s budget by addressing “flaws in the maintenance loan system” and raising loans in line with inflation from 2020/21.
The group also called on the government to consider reintroducing maintenance grants for the most disadvantaged students and to review the parental threshold for maximum credit support, which has been frozen since 2008.
A survey of more than 8,500 students in the first two months of this year found that the proportion of students who were considering dropping out has risen to more than three in 10 among the most socio-economically disadvantaged.
Among the most willing to leave were students from marginalized and disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as students with disabilities and part-time students.
International students, who are not allowed to work more than 20 hours a week, have also been hit hard.
Dani Bradford, policy and research manager at UCL’s Students’ Union, who led the research, said: “We really run the risk of our university system being only open to the most privileged.” Only among students with a family household income of over £75,000 did they see a significant drop in the number of people considering leaving school.
She said the average respondent fell below the UK poverty line and only £2 a week above the UK poverty line, after paying for housing.
“It’s not just that they can’t go out for a coffee or socialize, it’s a very real level of quite serious poverty that many of our students find themselves in – and with no way out,” Bradford said.
Students reported suicidal thoughts, suffered from severe anxiety and loneliness. Some said that their families did not turn on the heating in the house so that the children could eat.
“Students’ suffering has almost been normalized,” Bradford said, adding that many face eviction and go without food for several days.
UCL freshman Sophie Bush, 20, says she was seriously considering dropping out of a history and philosophy of science course because of the rising cost of living.
Bush, who comes from Essex and lives at the University of London, wants to do a master’s degree and a doctorate, but he knows that finances may prevent him from doing so. “I have to give up some parts of my goals and refocus them in other ways because I just won’t be able to tangibly afford it, which is really sad.”
She works as a part-time waitress and tries to save funds for next year so she can continue her studies, but still feels vulnerable and unsure how she will finance next year. Bush, who suffers from Crohn’s disease, said the cost of living crisis was making her even sicker because she was so anxious and stressed.
The university is not what she imagined and the students, she said, are “at a breaking point”. “I know that if things get worse, I will be at my breaking point. I’ve cried so many tears over money.”
Finnish student Evgenia Glantzi, who studies intellectual property law in Edinburgh, works 25-30 hours a week in retail to meet rising costs and sometimes has to miss lectures.
The 24-year-old said that coming from a low-income background, she sees completing her studies as a way to get a good job. But she said, “It would be so much easier to quit smoking.”
She said the life of a European student has already become much more difficult since Brexit, which has made “everything a lot more complicated”.
“We were welcome here before Brexit. It seems like now the government just wants to kick us out.”
The Department for Education said many universities were “increasing” support efforts and urged students who are concerned to “talk to their university before considering opting out”.
A spokesperson said: “We recognize that many students are struggling with the cost of living so we have made an extra £15m available to help students who need extra support, bringing our student contribution funding to £276m this academic year.”