As a recent Student Union survey found nearly half of students are struggling with their finances, Anna Boyne asks if their university experience is suffering.
It’s 11am on a Thursday morning. You’ve missed your 9am lecture again. Your head is pounding and you’re dying for some water.
As your reach for your phone, you grit your teeth and open the bank app.
Your stomach drops as you realise you’ve blown your weekly budget. Twice over.
The cliché “I’m never drinking again” springs to mind.
But this time, you can’t even afford food for the week.
Maybe it is time to stop the night’s out uni is supposed to be famous for.
You would not be alone.
A survey by the University of Nottingham’s Student Union found that 40% of respondents said they are struggling with their finances.
For many, it means the stereotypical carefree student life is far from the truth.
Hannah McCabe and Amelia Mearns are second-year students at the University of Nottingham.
On their podcast, Northerners Take Notts they use their platform to speak candidly of their experiences.
Amelia receives the minimum student loan which all goes towards covering her rent, then the rest is topped up with money from her own earnings.
This leaves her with a £10 weekly budget to spend on food and other necessities.
When she tried to access financial support from the university, she found the responses to be slow and the process unnecessarily complicated.
“It felt like a joke,” she says. “They’re not taking my financial situation seriously and the best they could offer was a free breakfast.
It felt quite patronising
“I appreciate the effort, but I don’t think it’s enough. It felt quite patronising.”
The “free breakfast” that Amelia was offered is a new scheme introduced by UoN SU.
The ‘Oasis Breakfast Club’ provides students a selection of cold breakfast items, as well as staff on hand to talk to for extra support.
It runs every Monday to Friday 8am-10am in the Portland Building.
While the effort is admirable, it seems that a free cold breakfast will do little to aid students, like Amelia, who are seriously struggling with the cost-of-living.
For both Hannah and Amelia, university is not the experience they were promised.
“I’m a first-generation uni student so my parents idealise uni and think I have a plethora of opportunities,” explains Hannah.
It’s a double-edged sword
“I do compared to the normal world but it’s a double-edged sword. I can only access them if I can afford them.”
University work and the student experience has taken a backseat for both Hannah and Amelia; they are forced to prioritise part-time jobs to afford to stay at university.
Over the Christmas holidays, Amelia worked 9 hour shifts 5 days a week at her local pub.
Not only did Amelia’s university work take a hit, as she was left with very little time to complete coursework, but her mental health significantly suffered.
“I was so exhausted from working all the time, then being back [in Nottingham] and trying to just get by. I feel down all the time because it’s a constant stress,” she adds.
It’s a constant background stress
Hannah agrees: “When you have issues with money it permeates itself into different areas of your life. It’s a constant background stress.”
Nightlife is typically seen as a hallmark of the student experience, yet Hannah rarely goes on nights out anymore.
“Spontaneous nights out are just not a thing… We try our best, but student life involves doing things that need money,” she says.
The cost-of-living crisis has made both Hannah and Amelia much more conscious of the costs involved on nights out: club tickets, transport, drinks etc.
Amelia has stopped going out altogether because she simply cannot afford it.
Their friendships have been affected by their inability to socialise
Both girls found that their friendships have been affected by their inability to socialise.
“You get scrutinised by people who can afford to go out, accusing you of not spending time with them,” says Amelia.
“People want to go out and spend money, and then made you feel bad for not doing those things… We had a friendship group who’s just stopped asking us to go out because we have to say no every time.”
Similarly, Hannah has been forced to prioritise time and money on close friends.
Especially during first year, she worked so much at her part-time job in Nottingham, that she had few opportunities to socialise with new people.
Instead, Hannah’s social network at university is principally friends from home and friends she’s met through them.
While Hannah and Amelia are just two students out of thousands, those earning a living from the city’s night-time economy have noticed a difference this academic year.
Greg has been a club promoter for nine years and currently works for Unit 13 and the Cell.
Students are still going on nights out, but they’re going later and spending less on drinks
He says students are still going on nights out, but they’re going later and spending less on drinks.
“Students are receiving the same amount of student loans, but the cost-of-living has gone up. I think people’s money is running out sooner,” Greg says.
He noticed that December and January, which are usually busy months, were quieter than usual.
This is probably because students went home earlier and stayed there longer.
He also employs students and noticed they were asking for more work sooner in the semester – another sign that money was running out quicker.
With nights out a financial no-go, hard-up students are also struggling to access the many extra curricular activities that can often define a person’s university experience.
Hannah had planned on joining the football club last year but couldn’t give up her weekends for matches.
She started women’s rugby, then realised her shifts clashed with the training sessions.
University societies shape so many students’ experiences.
But everything comes with a cost – especially sports clubs
But everything comes with a cost – especially sports clubs.
Last year, a social membership to the women’s hockey club was £30.
Being on the first team set students back £320.
Sean Nolan is the current UoN SU Sports Officer.
One of the first conversations he had with the SU Officers team was about the cost-of-living crisis. “It’s shaped us as an officer year,” he says.
“The cost-of-living crisis has sat at the back of our minds for everything we’ve done.”
He adds it will be the same for future officers.
This year, students living in on-campus accommodation at the University of Nottingham also benefit from the ‘Sport, Health and Wellbeing Package’.
This means that a UoN Sport membership is already built into the accommodation fees students pay.
“It’s a great way to boost engagement and remove a barrier for people to get involved in sport and physical activity,” adds Sean.
When students come to university, its usually the first time they’ve had to manage their own money.
Although the planning for the ‘Sport, Health and Wellbeing Package’ started before the academic year, “it’s happily coincided with the cost-of-living crisis,” says Sean.
It’s one less thing for students to worry about
By spreading the costs across the 40 weeks of accommodation fees, it’s one less thing for students to worry about.
UoN Sport currently offer ‘Just Play’, where students can access a huge range of sports sessions for free if they’re a UoN Sport member or for just £3 if they are not a member.
Already this academic year, there have been several ‘Girls Night In’ events in which students who identify as female can access a wide range of sports tasters and non-sport activities. It’s completely free- even for those without a UoN Sport membership.
Phil Wood is the Scholarship and Recruitment Manager at UoN, meaning he is the point of contact for elite athletes who may be struggling with the cost-of-living.
“I’m very aware of people choosing to get part-time jobs now more than ever,” he says.
Where possible, Phil helps athletes get part-time jobs affiliated with the university, as they tend to be much more accommodating and flexible regarding training and competition.
“I have been made aware of a small number who are struggling to fund the needs of their lifestyle for being a student athlete,” he says.
Students are cutting down on costs like nutrition and equipment, but a few are even struggling to afford rent.
University is often seen as the trial run for adulthood. It’s acceptable, even expected, that students will live off Pot Noodles, go out on the weekday, miss 9am lectures, and meet their friends for life in the process.
Are they getting the full university experience?
But with 40% struggling financially with the cost-of-living crisis, are they getting the full university experience? Or are students being forced into real world realities sooner?
What the Nottingham universities have to say….
A spokesperson from the University of Nottingham said: “The University of Nottingham has increased its Student Hardship Fund by 50% to £750,000 to provide grants and interest free loans to any student who is experiencing financial difficulties, as well as providing access to cheaper food options on campus, free kitchens, shower facilities, heated study spaces and period products. Students can find out more about the University’s support for them at https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/studentservices/money/cost-of-living.aspx
“The University is also working hard to shield students from significant price rises during the current cost-of-living crisis and has absorbed all cost increases for University accommodation this year rather than pass them onto students. We have also fixed 2023/24 increases in accommodation charges to 5% – the same level as last year – at a time when inflation was running at more than 12%.
“We are continuing to lobby the government for further support for students through our roles in Universities UK and the Russell Group. Together, universities can be a powerful lobby and we are collectively calling on government to: provide targeted hardship funding for UK students; reinstate maintenance grants for those most in need; ensure that support for students is protected against inflation; increase financial support for postgraduate researchers; and ensuring that any government action to support people with rising costs, such as energy, can be accessed by students across the UK, including those in halls.”
A Nottingham Trent University spokesperson said: “We recognise the impact that the increases in the cost of living can have on our students and we work in partnership with our students’ union to understand the kind of support needed. We provide a range of advice and guidance around managing money whilst studying and information about deals, perks and discounts.
“We regularly promote all that we offer to ensure that students know how we can help them. We have increased our hardship funds, have frozen prices at all our catering outlets and provide free fruit on campus. We have also targeted support for those most in need, such as bursaries or food parcels. We are also funding the costs of graduation gowns for all of our final year students.
“We’ll continue to listen to our students to ensure that we are doing all that we can to support them in the most appropriate way.”
To read more about what our Project Winter investigations revealed, click here.
Featured image courtesy of Anna Boyne. Permission to use granted to Impact.
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