The Cost of Living Crisis in the FE / HE Sector - Student and Staff Implications

Laura McHugh
Laura McHugh

Published: December 1st, 2022

7 min read

With the cost of living skyrocketing in recent months, the pressure of the crisis continues and is being keenly felt throughout many sections of society, including those in the further and higher education sectors. Below we look at the ways the crisis is impacting both students and staff and consider ways in which institutions can potentially offer help and support.

For Students

It goes without saying that the extent to which students are impacted by the costs of living crisis will vary both on an establishment and an individual basis. Notwithstanding this, given the recent hike in costs across a range of products and services, it is likely that almost all students will be affected in some way, with disadvantaged students feeling the pinch more than others.

The current crisis is far reaching and the Office of National Statistics released the results of a cost of living survey amongst Higher Education (HE) students on 23 November 2022, which focussed on a number of varying themes. The survey results showed that:

  • 91% of students were somewhat or very worried about the rising cost of living;
  • 77% of students were concerned that the rising cost of living may affect how well they do in their studies;
  • 45% of students reported their mental health and well-being had worsened since the start of the autumn term 2022;
  • 25% of students had taken on new debt in response to the rising cost of living; and
  • 18% of students said they had considered moving back to their family home and commuting.

Many students at HE and Further Education (FE) institutions have had a turbulent and unprecedented end to their school and college years due to the pandemic, not least due to remote studying and the uncertainty involved with predicted grades, and the current economic crisis is now another thing for them to grapple with.

Many students may take matters into their own hands and find employment alongside their studies, and some universities are in fact creating and promoting opportunities on campus and in the local area which may be feasible for students. Students have worked whilst studying since long before the crisis and indeed there are both financial and non-financial benefits to working whilst studying, however it is likely that more students than ever will now try to find part time jobs, and work more hours. This could potentially have a detrimental effect on to their ability to study and meet their academic goals in some circumstances, and could also contribute to burnout and exhaustion. Student welfare and wellbeing officers will need to be attuned to the competing demands on students who are working more and more hours in part time jobs just to ensure that essentials such as rent, bills and food are paid for.

Providers may also see a sharp increase in student enquiries relating to, and applications for, hardship funds, scholarships, grants and bursaries. As such it is unsurprising that many institutions are already looking at their available funds to support students, subject to eligibility requirements, and many are boosting the sum of monies to be more generous. Other providers are offering free or subsidised food and drink, for example in student unions and libraries, maximizing warm areas on campus for students to socialise and study in, or freezing or discounting rents for university owned and managed accommodation. All of these steps and interventions are no doubt being considered and implemented across the country with the intention of institutions keeping students on the roll, in attendance at classes and remaining on campus, rather than moving back to the family home.

The current situation may well impact prospective students applying for FE or HE courses, and could ultimately lead to a change in direction for those. Further, current students may withdraw from current courses or move away from their accommodation due to financial concerns, and the stagnant student loan contributions do not help matters. There have also been some reports by a survey commissioned by Unite Students that parents are exploring options to support their student children, for example 28% of parents are doing overtime at work, 10% have taken out a loan, and 3% have re-mortgaged their home as a result of worsening economic conditions.

It is important that institutions do not shy away from discussing the cost of living crisis when communicating with students, as to do so could result in students feeling isolated, alienated and unsupported. The topic should be a top priority for decision makers within institutions, with student contributions and feedback being actively sought out and relied upon. Institutions should seek to be proactive, understanding and flexible, but also realistic and pragmatic, which will no doubt be appreciated by the student body and beyond. Decisions in relation to potential breach of contracts owing to financial factors should be taken carefully, and expert advice should be sought where possible.

For Staff

It is crucial now, more than ever, that employers look at ways in which they can support their employees through this crisis. This is especially important as we pass through the winter months and the festive season, as household bills and the pressure to attend social events and engage in seasonal traditions rise, and budgets tighten.

The financial stress of the crisis may already be having an adverse effect on university and college employees' work and mental wellbeing, with an increased number of employees requesting further resources from their employers to improve their financial and mental wellbeing.

Many FE and HE employers are speaking with their employees, and employee representative groups, to determine what they would benefit from, and sometimes solutions can be provided on a limited budget that doesn't always mean an increase in salary or a cost of living one off payment. We have included a few examples below which some providers may already be considering or have in place:

  • Salary sacrifice schemes

By enabling employees to utilise salary sacrifice schemes, individuals can receive valuable benefits without the added stress of wondering how they can afford associated additional costs. For example, an employee may be able to exchange part of their salary for additional non-cash benefits such as childcare vouchers or a bicycle through a cycle to work scheme.

  • Embrace flexible working

For employees who commute to work, the rise in fuel prices can make working on site very costly. Conversely, for employees who live closer to work, working on site can be a favourable option in order to avoid higher gas, electric and heating costs. This again is especially important throughout the winter months. Providing employees with the option of flexibility where possible can help them both financially and personally, and helps ensure that employees feel comfortable in making the best decision for their circumstances.

  • Increase focus on financial wellbeing and mental health

Employers may wish to increase their focus and commit to supporting their employees' financial wellbeing. This can be achieved through a policy that directs employees to independent money and debt guidance, or providing access to resources from experts on financial education and debt management, with the objective of normalising conversations regarding concerns about money at work. Employers should also ensure that employees know what existing benefits are available, such as counselling services which cover finance and debt, any annual leave sell back scheme, or staff discounts. By informing employees how they can access free and independent advice and resources, providers can help to alleviate financial stress. Employers should also ensure their managers are trained on how to provide appropriate support, and signposting, for their employees.

Whilst each individual situation is different, collectively we are all affected by the cost of living crisis - students, employees and employers alike. Demonstrating that your organisation has acknowledged the current crisis and the difficulties which exist now, and which lie ahead in the future, is key to maintaining a positive workplace and learning environment.

For further information please contact Laura McHugh

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