Millions of households across the United Kingdom have been affected by the Cost of Living Crisis due to the swift surge in the prices of necessary goods and services such as energy, food, and fuel. As these increases have outpaced the average growth in people’s wages and welfare benefits, the ONS reported that in 2023 ‘around a third (35%) of adults reported it was difficult to afford their rent or mortgage payments’ (ONS, 2023). There is increasing concern among civil society, politicians, and academics about the devastating and long-term impacts of the crisis on the most vulnerable groups. While rarely viewed as such in public debate, higher education (HE) students constitute one of these groups.

Several surveys conducted since 2021 have shown that HE students are disproportionately affected by the crisis. For example, the Russell Group Cost-of-Living Survey showed that 81% of students feel that they have been affected by the crisis (Russell Group Student Union, 2023), while the Sutton Trust study revealed that ‘1 in 4 students regularly go without food and other necessities due to cost’ (Sutton Trust, 2023). Such a dire situation has led to calls to ‘consider students as a vulnerable group at all levels of the cost-of-living response’ (Freeman, 2023, p.57). Despite the urgent need to alleviate students’ hardship, their experiences are often overlooked and forgotten.

While there is strong quantitative evidence of the negative impact of the crisis on students, qualitative data about the everyday lived realities of students is scarce. Our study addresses this lack of representation and brings attention to the lived realities of students’ experiences during this time. This research focuses on the experiences and ways HE students in the North-West navigate the crisis, and how that, in turn, affects their health and wellbeing.

The results of our study are both sobering and alarming. Students describe their crisis experience as ‘scary’, ‘lonely’ and ‘embarrassing’. It impacts every aspect of their lives, shapes their lifestyles, and influences their physical and mental health and wellbeing. To make ends meet, students are adopting a spectrum of coping mechanisms, such as cutting back on food, electricity, and transportation usage, increasing hours in paid employment, and opting out of socialising with their friends. This leads them to experience a crippling and persistent feeling of what they call ‘money anxiety’:

I don’t sleep very much because I just feel like my brain’s always switched on. I’ve said to my friends that I think about money all the time. Like I could be sat in a lecture and then as soon as that lecture is over my head’s like, ‘check your bank’ … I feel like I’m going to open my bank and there’s going to be nothing there. So, it causes a lot of anxiety.

They also revealed that their physical and mental health is affected by factors such as the inability to afford socialising with their peers, maintaining a healthy diet, or heating their homes. For example, one student interviewed in our study disclosed:

There was a period in December, just before we all went home for Christmas, where we couldn’t afford to have the heating on, otherwise we’d go over our energy allowance, which I just think is crazy. It was just- I never would have imagined that, although I am working class, I never imagined that I’d have to turn off my heating, and that sort of thing, because I thought my loan would cover it. (…) I was ill those few weeks, and I wasn’t getting any better, and that was because the heating wasn’t on, so I was in a cold, damp house whilst also having some sort of cold or chest infection.

The profound impact of the cost of living crisis on students’ experiences, health, and well-being is largely triggered by the lack of adequate support and an obsolete, unfit-for-purpose maintenance grant system. The recent 2.8 per cent increase in the maintenance loan allowance was based on an outdated and incorrect inflation prediction that underestimates consumer price inflation by about 8 per cent (Waltmann 2022). As a result, the value of support for students’ living costs has dropped to its lowest level in seven years, and the maximum maintenance loan entitlement is now less than what could be earned through minimum-wage employment.

To address the financial gap faced by students during the crisis and alleviate their hardship, targeted and immediate government reforms are paramount. Reviewing the maintenance loan system and addressing its shortcomings would be the fastest and most effective short-term crisis response, as this system remains ‘the most substantial, accessible, targeted, systematic, and sustainable source of financial support’ for students (Dabrowski et al 2024).

The fact that student voices have been neglected during the last few years is truly perplexing. Students are the backbone of the UK higher education sector. A sector which in the 2021-2022 academic year, is estimated to have an economic contribution of ‘£71bn in terms of gross value added’ and ‘£116bn in terms of general economic output’ (Taylor 2024). The minimum students deserve is political representation and for their issues to be heard and addressed. Students in our research cohort provided their own explanation of why their voices and hardships were not represented or sufficiently addressed during the cost of living crisis. They argued that the inaccurate stereotype of students and their needs is partly responsible for this. In their own words, students are often seen as a careless, oblivious cohort that has minimal needs and can survive on ‘cans of beans’. In reality, the modern student represents a diverse demographic exposed to the same turbulent conditions currently plaguing the country. They need the same type of attention and support as any other vulnerable group experiencing the cost of living crisis.

Natalija Atas is a Senior Lecturer of Public Health and Social Care at the School of Social Science at Liverpool Hope University. Her research interests incorporate the key areas of social policy inquiry related to poverty, inequality, and social determinants of health. She is currently conducting research into the effects of the cost of living crisis. Natalija strongly believes that our society cannot truly progress without addressing issues of poverty and inequality and that such progress can only be achieved through adopting positive forces of collaboration, empathy, and education. Natalija is co-founder of the Poverty Research and Advocacy Network (PRAN).  Twitter: @AtasNatalija

Vicki Dabrowski is a Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Social Sciences at Liverpool Hope University. She is passionate about working to address social inequality. Her work seeks to understand the mechanisms by which forms of inequality are reproduced, legitimised but also resisted through a focus on everyday lived experiences. She is currently conducting research into the effects of the cost of living crisis. Having experience in both academia and the not-for-profit sector, Vicki firmly believes in the importance of knowledge sharing, collaboration, and co-production across various domains to bring about substantial and meaningful change. Vicki is co-founder of the Poverty Research and Advocacy Network (PRAN).  Twitter: @Dabrowski_V