#ProjectWinter: The Blame Game – Whose Job Is It To Help Students?

Lucinda Dodd

Impact and Platform’s investigation, Project Winter, has put the spotlight on the massive financial hardships experienced by Nottingham students as the cost of living crisis took hold over this past winter.

This ranges from living in housing that is covered in mould through to skipping meals to save money. Some students have even had to take on full-time jobs on top of their studies.

And some have felt no choice but to turn to sex work to fund their degrees.

But, are universities doing enough to help students through the cost of living crisis?

And how are the universities themselves faring during the tough economic times?

And ultimately, is it the universities or the Government who are responsible to adequately fund students?

The University of Nottingham’s Students’ Union Community Officer, Daisy Forster, spells out in dramatic terms how the cost of living crisis has shaped her time in office so far.

The impact of rising costs and tightening student budgets has been such that she had to confess: “I’ve put my manifesto to one side to focus on this for the year”.

Daisy revealed how she’s pursued many avenues in trying to get help for financially struggling students this past winter, but realises that the amount of support isn’t nearly enough. She’s had multiple meetings with senior figures to try to get struggling students the support they need. This has included meetings with University officials, MPs, local councillors, and even the CEO of the Russell Group, Tim Bradshaw.

Daisy’s main aim has been to try to get measures in place to help students who are battling with the cost of living rise. This had included efforts to get increases in the loans and bursaries available to students. It’s been hard-going and the measures that the Students’ Union have been able put in place to help financially-challenged students have been pretty minor in comparison with Daisy’s ambitious aspirations.

When it comes to what the Students’ Union has been able to do, Daisy Forster lists the provision of free sanitary products and pregnancy tests now available around SU premises – and access to the free breakfast club which takes places on all three UoN campuses. 

Daisy (left) pointing to cabinets in SU building which contain sanitary products.

Daisy’s aware that when financial troubles strike, it’s students’ opportunities to socialise which tend to be hit first.

So she lists the provision of events such as ‘Mooch Live’ – a weekly live music event that takes place in the Student Union Bar. 

Photo of ‘Mooch Live’ taken by Thomas Acratopulo.

The bar was also able to make sure that students were able to watch the World Cup free of charge in November.

Daisy says that signposting the limited support that’s available to students has been a crucial element in the SU’s cost of living crisis response. There’s been much updating of web pages devoted to this – as well as the provision of leaflets and putting up posters across campus.

Daisy points out that the Students’ Union has made efforts to publicise the limited support options through events such as the ‘Cost of Living Q&A’ and the SU ‘Cost of Living Fair’ that ran at the start of the academic year.

The Q&A event took place last October, and panelists included local MP Lilian Greenwood, Student Union Development Officer Sultan Chaundry and Senior Manager for Funding and Financial Support at UoN, Robert Peck.

They spoke about what help there was to help ease students’ financial concerns as we headed into what everyone knew was going to be a tough winter.

But it clearly wasn’t enough.

It may have seemed that – on the face of it – the University of Nottingham appeared to be responding well to the crisis.

But Daisy was not convinced.

On 21st November last year, she put up a post on Instagram which revealed that she’d sent a letter to the University Executive Board (UEB). Her letter noted that it was “unfortunate” that the UEB had been “unable” to put forward a spokesman at the Cost of Living Q&A.

And she demanded that the university adopt measures to help students such as by increasing their bursary offer. Daisy challenged UoN to follow the stand of Nottingham Trent which gave all of its students £20 of printing credit for each academic year.

“there’s a lot UoN can learn from Trent”

Asked about if she has found the UEB’s response to student hardship this winter genuine, Daisy replied: “I don’t know”. “I would have liked to have seen more from the top saying this is an unprecedented situation – here’s money from our reserves to start projects. And we haven’t seen that.”

Asked how she found Nottingham Trent’s response to the cost of living crisis in comparison to UoN’s, Daisy declared: “Trent acted faster.” “Let’s just say there’s a lot UoN can learn from Trent in the way they operate in terms of the student experience”. 

Daisy is worried about how bursaries for students with household incomes of less than £35,000 have not risen in line with inflation. 

[student hardship funding] is “so important” that the university will finance it as much as necessary

I took some of Daisy’s concerns to UEB’s Stephen McAuliffe – the University of Nottingham’s Deputy Registrar – whose role in helping students through the cost of living crisis has been starting discussions and co-ordinations and asking the University for money for initiatives.

In terms of what the University has put in place, he said that student hardship funding has increased. He noted that two years ago UoN spent £400,000 in hardship funding whereas this year it’s expected to spend £900,000. He says this measure is “so important” that the university will finance it as much as necessary. “We’ll fund it by shifting other things around,” he proclaimed.

Stephen McAuliffe stressed that he wants all students to feel they can come forward for this money if they need to. “We don’t want people to have shame behind the word ‘hardship’. Come forward if you need it!” he said.

“We have to put a line somewhere. We’re spending other students’ money when we increase the hardship funding”

He said that to encourage this approach among students, the university is looking at changing the hardship fund’s name to something more helpful.

Whilst this fund helps students in the worst circumstances, Daisy Forster had concerns for those students who may fall through the cracks. She explains that this includes those who can perhaps just about pay their bills, but are still struggling.

But Stephen McAuliffe stressed: “We have to put a line somewhere. We’re spending other students’ money when we increase the hardship funding.” 

He also said that the University is trying to encourage societies and sports groups to be more conscious of the financial positions of other students – and for student groups to run cheap or free socials.

Both Daisy and Stephen agree that the government is ultimately responsible for adequately funding students

Furthermore, he shared that the university has introduced a Student Financial Capability Manager and has put in kitchens and kettles across campus so students can make their own food.

However, both Daisy and Stephen agree that the government is ultimately responsible for adequately funding students and must do more to ensure that they’re are able to support themselves through their studies. But according to Gov.uk, the Government sees the situation differently.

It says: “Universities are responsible for ensuring students who need help get the support they need, including through their own hardship funds, or through bursaries and scholarships.”

The University advocacy organisation, Universities UK, states: “These are difficult times for many students, especially those from low-income backgrounds. Universities have stepped up efforts to alleviate financial pressures during the cost-of-living crisis. We need to look more closely at how well the current system and government’s own support measures are helping students and what changes need to be made. Students offer so much to society and there is a risk they become the forgotten group in the cost-of-living crisis.”

But while universities scramble to help their students through the crisis, how are they themselves coping with it?

Home students pay £9,250 a year to study in the UK, and despite many students already feeling this is not good value for money, universities are losing money on UK students. The student fees universities are allowed to charge home students have not gone up in line with inflation for 10 years. 

A third of UK universities are now in a deficit

This means universities are forced to take measures such as increasing staff-student ratios; reducing support for student services and cutting courses that aren’t financially viable. 

The cost of living crisis comes at a time when the University College Union is striking – with their lecturers asking for more pay in order to survive. And a third of UK universities are now in a deficit. 

Speaking to the ‘News Agents’ podcast, Universities UK’s Chief Executive Vivienne Stern said “Universities will slowly diminish in quality if nothing is done”. “We don’t have long to find a solution.”

Asked about how the University itself is finding the crisis, Stephen McAuliffe replied: “The university’s electricity bill is huge.”

He said the university is trying to find ways to be more efficient and make long term savings – such as by installing double glazing to cut heating costs over time.

He revealed the university is also having to find new ways to make more money, including by running external events, such as being the venue for outside organisation conferences.

It seems like an endless blame game between the government and the universities

Whether the University is doing enough to help students is a contentious issue. 

It seems like an endless blame game between the government and the universities as to who is responsible for helping students through the cost of living crisis.

And until it’s decided who is accountable, it’s the students who will continue to suffer.

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.”

Lucinda Dodd

To read more about what our Project Winter investigations revealed, click here

Featured image courtesy of Gemma Cockrell. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.

In-article image courtesy of Thomas Acratopulo. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image. 

In-article Instagram post 1 courtesy of @uonsu_studentvoice via Instagram.com. No changes made to this image.

In-article Instagram post 2 courtesy of @uonsu_community and @uonsu_officers via Instagram.com. No changes made to this image.

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