Orla Tarn, President of the NUS Wales
Being skint is often seen as a ubiquitous part of student life. I certainly had to wait weeks for the last part of my student loan to come along to make ends meet on even the simplest of meals. However, I fear that the days when students didn’t think twice about ordering that next pint at the student bar or enjoying a meal with classmates will be over when students return to campus this month.
As the new President of the National Union of Students in Wales, I am increasingly concerned about the impact the cost of living crisis is having on a generation that has already faced so much disruption and uncertainty during the pandemic.
Our latest study – a survey of 3,500 students across the UK – found that 96% of students are making savings, primarily on socializing, food, energy, transport to and from campus, educational resources and essential health care.
And that’s before energy costs rise this fall. The new Prime Minister’s plan to freeze the energy price cap at £2,500 still represents a significant increase from the current cap of £1,971. Our survey found that one in three students has just £50 a month to live on after paying rent and bills paid – now much of it is swallowed up by the higher cap.
In Wales, university students are entitled to the most generous alimony package of any British nation. However, this is only up 3.5% this year, far from in line with inflation. Also, around half of students in Wales are non-Welsh, meaning they will live on less alimony – or, in the case of international students, no alimony at all.
It’s clear that students need help right now, and that existing support – like tax breaks and Universal Credit support – was not designed for students. Without the intervention of governments and institutions, no amount of budgeting will keep many students from falling into poverty this fall.
Students are at a financial breaking point, and this only adds to a student mental health crisis that is already being exacerbated by the pandemic, poor housing quality and culture war fighters attacking the most vulnerable in our society.
It is quite clear that this is a matter for the new Prime Minister and her cabinet. The funding needed to support students adequately – by increasing maintenance support to match inflation, providing more scholarships and bursaries and raising the miserable minimum wage for apprentices (£4.81) – can only come from the UK government to be provided.
And it’s not just us at NUS who demand that. Last week, vice-chancellors from universities across the UK called on the UK government to raise the cost of living, pointing to the very real risk of more students dropping out because they simply cannot afford to study.
But there are measures the Welsh Government can take. During the pandemic, ministers have invested more than £100million to deal with financial difficulties and protect students’ mental health. This is a crisis on par with the pandemic, and the response from governments and institutions must also be on par.
In the longer term, I would like Wales to go a lot further in terms of education. The failed marketing of higher education has put profit ahead of students for over a decade. The results today can be seen in rising rents, regular strike votes by underpaid and overworked staff across education after 16 years and a sharp decline in student experience.
The Welsh Government has an opportunity to think differently about education and take a radical approach to the benefit of pupils, learners and trainees across the country. Through its Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill, it has strengthened student voice protections and mental health services, but much more needs to be done to put students and staff at the heart of the system.
My short-term focus is to support students on the front lines of the cost of living crisis, but I want to work with ministers to create a truly student-centred system that is sustainable and treats education as a public good, not a commodity to be bought and sold target. Make no mistake, it’s a difficult time being a student right now, but I see a way forward for a brighter future.
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