Students face skyrocketing rents, soaring energy bills and insurmountable food price hikes. But the government is unwilling to provide them with enough to afford these increases in the cost of living. Many of the struggles students face could be resolved if they were simply given more money in their maintenance loans – which are given to students to help pay for rent, bills and food.
What we are witnessing is government policy failing to deliver a decent standard of living for students. Ministers should tie maintenance loan increases to inflation. This would be crucial in combating the impoverishing effect of the cost-of-living crisis, as spikes in inflation would be met with equally high increases in maintenance provision. Instead, under the current system students have lost a substantial amount of their buying power as a result of continual below-inflation maintenance loan increases.
Recently, the government confirmed that student maintenance loans will be increasing by a measly 2.8 per cent. This means students who receive the maximum amount of maintenance will receive £9,978 in 2023-24, which is £1,583 less than the £11,501 they would have received if maintenance was tied to inflation. This pitiful increase is an insult to students when you consider that the price of a bowl of tomato pasta with shredded cheese, a student staple meal, has risen 54 per cent in the last year.
Maintenance loans were introduced in 2016, replacing the old grants system. Since then prices have risen by around 40 per cent while maintenance loans have increased by half that amount, at around 20 per cent – a significant real-terms cut and a crisis that will lead to a tremendous drop in the standard of living for students.
Students from the poorest households without family income to fall back on will be the worst hit. However, the drop in maintenance is also going to affect students and their families with higher income. Their parents are going to have to fork out more to support their child at university, whilst also struggling to navigate the cost-of-living crisis and increases in mortgage payments as interest rates are ramped up.
More students than ever will be forced to join the workforce to make ends meet in some of the most exploited sectors, namely retail, hospitality, online tutoring and sex work. This will place additional pressure on students as they struggle to balance studying and having enough money to eat.
If maintenance loans were increased and tied to inflation many students would be pulled out of poverty and part-time work, allowing them more time to focus on studying. Parents would also benefit, as their children would be able to support themselves independently.
This is not just an economic question either – the improvements would help address the mental health crisis on campuses too. Students would be under far less stress if life was not a constant balancing act between part-time work, studies, food bills and energy bills.
To get their voices heard, students should join the picket lines held by staff in the University and Colleges Union (UCU), who will be striking this month and next. This is because the struggle staff face over pay and conditions mirrors students’ struggle over maintenance loans. Uniting them to improve the conditions of those in higher education gives students and staff the best hope of achieving meaningful change.
Clearly, the current system for maintenance loans is falling short. The 2 million undergraduate students who are 20 per cent worse off than they were in 2020 can attest to this. The best solution, that would avert spikes in inflation from eating away at the living-standards of students, is to tie increases in maintenance loans to inflation.
While there are many problems that students have to face, addressing the shortfalls of the current maintenance loans system would be the best place to start. Not only would this address many of the immediate issues that plague the lives of students, it would also prevent these issues coming back to haunt students in the future.
Tom Wood is a member of the union Unite, a masters student in public policy, and a former teaching assistant