Growing numbers of students are falling victim to domestic abuse and criminal exploitation as welfare services struggle to keep pace with demands for cost-of-living support, MPs have warned.
The all party parliamentary group for students has also found that as well as leaving courses early to work, students are prioritising courses that will quickly lead to job opportunities rather than progressing to further study.
The cross-party group of MPs heard that more college students are applying for supported housing as domestic abuse reports increase, while some colleges are also reporting an increase in criminal and sexual exploitation.
“The number of at risk learners is greater than ever,” the report warned.
But it also said “reduced capacity in external social and public services” means there are “limited options” when colleges look for additional support for their students.
Some colleges also reported “extreme financial destitution” has resulted in more students becoming victims of criminal or sexual exploitation or being involved with criminal gangs.
“Vulnerable students are often drawn into lawbreaking because of extreme financial destitution, which puts them at serious risk whilst also having a negative impact on their studies,” the APPG report said.
The APPG based its report on evidence from nearly 80 college staff and more than 700 students gathered through a survey by the Association of Colleges (AoC).
FE Week understands a “high percentage” of respondents raised concerns around safeguarding issues including poverty, wellbeing and housing issues.
The APPG warned that the cost-of-living crisis is “entrenching disadvantage” among FE students due to a decade of funding cuts to colleges, which “exacerbated the impact of the current financial crisis”.
Students wearing the same clothes every day
The report also warned “extreme financial desperation” is increasing among students and their families, and that many colleges are “regularly” reporting cases of extreme student poverty.
College students were often seen wearing the same clothes every day for long periods of time, wearing workplace protective gear outside of college, or coming to college every day to keep warm, even when they had no classes.
Student bursaries have become “essential for family budgets” the report warned. Rather than using their transport bursaries themselves, students give them to their families and walk miles to college.
One of the respondents, Hartlepool College of Further Education, said there had been a 75 per cent increase in the number of 16-18-year-old students asking for help with food.
More than 90 per cent of the college’s students have also requested bursary support from the college, in comparison to 65 per cent last year.
The APPG has called on government to “consider the case” for extending free school meal eligibility, and for more college funding for bursaries. It also called for free or subsidised travel for those in FE aged between 16 and 19.
It wants government to increase the apprenticeship minimum wage, and allow providers to use bursary funds to support their apprentices. Local authorities should also provide providers with data to show who needs bursaries, as is done in schools.
Short term course decisions
Financial pressures are also pushing more students to drop out of further education in the past year, with colleges warning that keeping attendance up has been “one of their main challenges”.
At least twenty colleges mentioned the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on student retention and attendance, according to the APPG.
Due to rising costs, FE students are “struggling to prioritise their studies over maintaining jobs and working more hours to make ends meet”, which has led to more students dropping out.
The pressures are also affecting their decisions on what classes to take, with some students opting for shorter courses or those that will quickly lead to job opportunities, rather than progression to further learning.
“Rather than making longer-term career decisions and achieving their potential, students are having to think about what will allow them to best support themselves and their families in the short term, sacrificing longer-term educational goals,” the report said.
‘Severe’ impact on mental health
Financial pressures are having an impact on mental health, especially among 16-to-18-year-olds.
More than 90 per cent of colleges said there had been an increase in the number of those students disclosing mental health difficulties.
Eight in ten colleges said that they made a referral to A&E over student mental health in the last year, while more than nine in ten said they are aware of attempted suicides by students over the same period.
At the same time mental health provision is “much lower” in colleges than universities, the report warned.
Currently, 68 per cent of colleges employ their own counsellors.
The APPG called on colleges to research the jobs students take on alongside their studies and the impact of those jobs on engagement and attainment at college.
It also wants colleges to assess the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on mental health and address those issues through student support – and is calling on colleges to make sure FE provision meets the needs of the local area by listening to students and the wider community.
APPG for Students chair and MP for Sheffield Central Paul Blomfield said: “Further education should provide an opportunity for skills development and social mobility, however many of the young people and adults who might benefit most from further education and training are now – because of the cost-of-living crisis – less likely to take up opportunities to study, attend courses and achieve their potential.”
Bernadette Savage, vice-president for further education at the National Union of Students said it was “shocking” that students and apprentices are leaving education because they cannot afford it.
“We continually hear how students are the future workforce and how they will help to tackle the climate crisis and skills gap but how can we expect this from students who are arriving to class hungry , cold and exhausted?”
Savage called on government to increase the apprenticeship wage to the real living wage, and to “ensure students are given the means to be able to eat, heat their homes and get to classes safely”.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said it “recognise[s]” the impact inflation is having on families and that it is “committed to ensuring further education is financially sustainable”.
“That is why we have increased the 16-19 bursary fund by more than 12 per cent to over £152 million this academic year, helping disadvantaged students who couldn’t otherwise afford to participate in education with costs of books, equipment, and trips where needed.
“We have also increased overall funding for the sector with an extra £1.6billion in 2024-25, which is the biggest increase in 16-19 funding in a decade.”