For most students their costs of living exceed their student loan – sometimes significantly so. Rent and the general cost of living is spiralling throughout the whole of the UK and this means that students must make up the difference through other sources.

There is an unspoken expectation, that is built into policy, that parents will plug the gap between the amount of maintenance loan given through the loan system and the actual cost of living. While this is known by some parents, and many affluent families are able to financially contribute to their child’s living costs, this is not universal. Parents with multiple children at university, and those from lower income families are not able to plug the gap between government loans and the true cost of living.

Other students have to find other sources of income usually through a part time job during the summer, but increasingly many are also working during term time. Many of these jobs are low wage and zero-hours contracts meaning there is a constant worry that they need to do a certain number of hours to pay for food, bills etc. For some students who are unable to rely on their parents at all for any financial assistance, they are more likely to work far more than 15 hours per week during term time. 

There is a growing body of evidence that working during term time impacts on student ability to do well in assessment by restricting access to independent study time, and impacts on getting the best value out of the student experience (extracurricular activities, increasing social and cultural capital etc).  Financial struggles also contribute to negative student wellbeing which can also contribute to lower attainment. 

This time poverty does not just affect students’ ability to engage in independent study hours and social activities but increasingly students have to miss lectures to attend work. My own academic research of first in family students shows that the inability for these students to receive financial support from their parents means that some have to work 20+ hours a week, at all hours of the day. Many chose night work in supermarkets for example because it pays more money, but these students are left feeling sleep deprived and not able to offer their best academic work. 

Claire Callender’s 2008 study of over 1000 undergraduates found that the more hours students had to work, the greater the effect on their academic progress and were 33% less likely to get a ‘good degree’ than their fellow students who didn’t work – even accounting for prior academic achievements. Since then, more and more students have had to supplement their maintenance loan with term time work to meet the costs of living. However there is evidence that skilled work improves academic attainment although opportunities for students to secure this type of employment are scarce. 

The trend in term time work is worrying from a retention and progression perspective. The OfS expects that students from all backgrounds have equal opportunities to engage in high quality and supportive teaching – but for those under financial pressures this is simply not the case. This is also true where providers put on extra-curricular academic or employability activities. These are often less accessible to students who work (and those with caring responsibilities), especially if they are organised at short notice. My research indicates that this is one of the reasons why students wish to see more ‘contact hours’ as they want all the need to be successful to be included on their timetables. I think we sometimes forget that many students, especially those who are first in their family to attend HE, simply do not know what they should be prioritising and how to get the best out of their university experience. 

Whilst regulators may talk about student outcomes solely on the quality and level of academic qualification, students who engage less in social activities are also onwardly impacted in the labour market. They have less cultural and social capital to seek out opportunities for employment, and also have less to set themselves apart in the competitive marketplace. This may be in part why research shows that affluent students are better able to navigate the graduate jobs market and secure more highly skilled and highly paid employment.

So what can be done? 

  • We need an approach to student maintenance funding that recognises that some students are unable to draw down from the bank of mum and dad, and this puts them at a disadvantage both academically and socially to their more affluent peers. 
  • We need to find better solutions to spiralling living costs – especially with regards to housing. Therefore the poorest students should be offered a grant. 
  • The current approach to financial hardship funding is not equally distributed. A HE provider with many disadvantaged students has more requests for hardship and therefore gives out smaller amounts than a HE provider with fewer financially disadvantaged students.  
  • HE institutions need to better understand the financial pressures of their students in order to ensure students have access to the ‘full’ university experience and obtain a good value degree. This includes issues of timetabling, assessment timing, access to library and specialist learning facilities, extra curricular activity costs and additional employability schemes. 
  • We need to provide better Information Advice and Guidance before and during university to articulate the value of all of the experiences and service the university offers. Otherwise students will simply deprioritise extra curricular activities in pursuit of financial stability which will hurt them in the long term. 

As we come closer to finding out the full government response to Augar it is important to reflect not just on how reforms affect the quality of HE delivery, but also that the cost of HE is not simply the headline tuition fee. It is a plethora of day to day costs for students that can adversely impact their academic studies. If we truly want to create equality of opportunity, more needs to be done to support students in financial hardship – a grant for the poorest would make a substantial difference, as would reforming hardship funding more generally.

But there is also work to be done outside of the impending finance reforms that HEIs could action tomorrow – without additional costs and that is to be far bolder on their websites about the transformational nature of the university experience outside of classroom learning – perhaps then value for money will be seen as a more rounded concept than simply contact hours and teaching quality and students from all backgrounds would be encouraged to engage in the wider student experience which dramatically helps their future employment opportunities.