University students in England are left with the equivalent of 50p a week to live on from their loans after paying for accommodation, the cost of which has soared by nearly 15% over the last two years, research has revealed.
Maintenance loans, which students take out on top of tuition fee loans to pay for living costs, are now almost entirely wiped out by rent alone, according to a report by the student accommodation charity Unipol and the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).
With the average annual student rent in England now £7,566 and the average maintenance loan expected to be £7,590 this year, the authors calculate that students are left with just £24 a year to cover their living costs, which works out at 50p a week.
Even in the case of the maximum maintenance loan, which only the poorest students are entitled to, the proportion eaten up by rent is still more than three-quarters (76%), when it is generally accepted that rent should account for no more than 30% of income. In many cases parents are unable to help.
The report, published on Thursday, focuses on student rental markets in 10 major regional university cities outside London and Edinburgh and found that students in Bristol pay the highest average annual rent outside the capital, up by 9% over the past two years to £9,200.
Exeter is not far behind at £8,559 (+16%), followed by Glasgow, which has seen the biggest rise in rent over the two-year period, up more than 20% to £7,548. Rents are highest in the cities where there is a shortage of student accommodation.
Large rent increases were also seen in Nottingham (up 15% to £8,427), Leeds (also up almost 15% to £7,627) and Bournemouth (up 11% to £7,396). Liverpool, Cardiff and Sheffield were the most affordable of those surveyed, with lower rents and smaller annual increases.
Victoria Tolmie-Loverseed, Unipol’s assistant chief executive, said students facing financial difficulties were being forced to take desperate measures, including illegally doubling up in rooms, taking on increasing amounts of paid work, or even avoiding university altogether.
“Failing to address the student housing crisis risks undermining decades of progress in widening participation in higher education. We risk excluding those from poorer backgrounds, forcing middle-income students to take on unsustainable debts, and damaging the student experience for all.”
Natalia Gromek, 22, who studied psychology at Bristol University, where she recently finished a postgraduate degree, said working-class students were in danger of being priced out of going to university in some cities. “Despite receiving the maximum maintenance loan, I didn’t have parents who could support me financially and I struggled with how expensive it was to live,” she said.
She took on part-time work to try to make ends meet, but that also created problems.
“There is nothing wrong with students taking out part-time jobs, but I had to work three full days, which really impacted my ability to fit in adequate study time and made my experience pretty stressful,” she said. “Working-class students are underrepresented in Bristol because it is so hard to live there without financial support from family. Something needs to change before students like me are priced out of going to university in certain cities.”
Nick Hillman, Hepi director, said: “Across most of the UK, the official levels of maintenance support simply do not cover anything like most students’ actual living costs. In the short term, maintenance support should be increased at least in line with inflation. For the longer term, we need measures to encourage the supply of new student housing, which is currently restricted by factors such as higher interest rates and confusion over new regulation.”
A spokesperson for Universities UK, which represents 142 universities, said: “Universities will continue to support students, but we need government to help address this. The 2.8% rise in maintenance support announced for students in England is inadequate and will not cover the real-terms cut to maintenance that students have experienced since inflation began to rise.”
Responding to the report, which was based on data provided by universities and the 10 largest providers of purpose-built student accommodation operating across the 10 cities, Chloe Field, the National Union of Students’ vice-president for higher education, said: “With an election approaching, and students increasingly angry at being ignored, the government must take action to ensure an affordable bed for every student.
“This means a significant uplift to the maintenance loans, implementing rent controls, and overhauling the student funding system while returning to a grants system.”
The Department for Education said the highest levels of support are targeted at students from the lowest-income families but if students are worried they should speak to their university. “To support universities to help their students we are making £276m available this academic year, which institutions can use to top up their own hardship schemes,” it said.