“We are struggling to make ends meet and even a coffee is a novelty. Students already are having it hard and now the future is very bleak.”
That’s the assessment of one college student in the north-east of England, but one that students across the country recognise as the cost of living crisis continues.
FE leaders spoke to FE Week about how they are having to go to further and further lengths beyond that of simply providing education, such as clothing students out of their own pockets, while the National Union of Students warns that students are being pushed to the brink, with some being forced to drop out of education.
The combination of cost increases for food, petrol, energy and council tax precepts, among other things, means household budgets are being stretched considerably.
The NUS is currently running a survey asking students to share their experiences. Responses from some of the FE learners already submitted have demonstrated it is having a big impact beyond just bank balances.
“Cost of living is a definite strain in my family, social and academic life. I’m unable to buy books and resources, our family doesn’t really go out for food or travelling too much any more,” one student from the West Midlands, who wished to not be named, said.
Another student, from Scotland, said: “It’s a crisis of food or fuel. Food is winning the now but come winter, I’m not so sure of how to cut back on food cost and increase fuel money when it’s cold.”
In London, one student reported: “The price of food in my college has gone up, and the prices of food in shops around my college area have also gone up. It’s become difficult to buy food and to travel during the last few weeks.”
This provides just a snapshot of the struggles students are facing, with many more flying under the radar.
Salsabil Elmegri, NUS vice-president for further education, said the union would like to see a student cost of living payment created by the government. “We’re hearing from students who can’t even afford to go for a cup of coffee with their mates, let alone transport and study materials.
“Students aren’t cash cows. We are at breaking point, and we’re desperate for something radically different,” Elmegri added.
While colleges have been keen to ensure students can continue their studies and improve their future chances, some students say they have no choice but to find work instead.
Katy Urwin, assistant principal at North Warwickshire and South Leicestershire College, said: “Anecdotally we have had more students leaving us part-way through the year. Because of financial pressure, they weren’t able to complete their course.”
Around 11 per cent of students who have withdrawn from their course in-year have done so because of financial problems, she said.
Alison Purver, head of student engagement at Leeds City College, said: “We have to be creative with our timetables. They might have three longer days, to give them time to work [on the other two] because they need money.
“It used to be students were working late at night and they were tired. If you allow more time for them to get part-time jobs, they are earning and learning.”
How have providers responded?
Common threads to emerge from college leaders have been an uptick in breakfast club demand and handing out clothes to some of the poorest students.
Hartlepool College’s welfare officer Ronnie Bage said: “I have clothed somebody this week. Every week I clothe somebody. Sometimes I pay out of my own pocket. Staff bring in clothing from their teenagers that they don’t wear any more. It’s like a community thing – we are all in it, we are all supportive.”
Cornwall College, meanwhile, has provided free smart-wear clothes specifically to help students when it comes to interviews.
Rebecca Barrington, director of student experience at Cornwall College, said: “Students can be quite good at hiding it, and actually if a student has got the right clothes for an interview that’s going to help them get a job and help them with a future.”
Breakfast clubs have become increasingly important. They provide a guaranteed means of ensuring students have had a meal. Urwin said the increase in demand for breakfast clubs at North Warwickshire and South Leicestershire College (demand now stands at more than one in ten learners) meant it has had to seek support from supermarkets to obtain food.
“Sometimes we do collections twice a week,” she said. “We are making those relationships with supermarkets so we can be those additional services, but it is difficult because we are educators and spending time on other things.”
She added: “We might joke about being hangry but we really recognise that term. If they haven’t had their breakfast or their lunch they are not able to regulate their behaviour. Knowing they have had food means they are much more ready to learn.”
Another side-effect to the crisis reported by sector leaders has been demand for bursaries.
Purver said around 7,000 students at Leeds City College receive bursary support, with a year-on-year increase of seven per cent. Around 30 per cent of learners at North Warwickshire and South Leicestershire get help through bursaries.
Meanwhile at Hartlepool College, principal Darren Hankey said around 650 of the 1,200 students were receiving bursary support. Pre-pandemic it was around 40 per cent of the student body who were eligible; now it is pushing 60 per cent, he said.
This has raised fears that some teenagers – particularly those who may be more vulnerable – may be drawn to county lines drug gangs. “It can be quite alluring, if someone is potentially lavishing you with a new phone or trainers, and some of the mechanisms they [the gangs] use are quite well established,” Hankey said.
Mental health linked to poverty
Bage said he greets students at Hartlepool at the front door every day to build up a rapport, to make sure they are OK and to spot any changes in mannerisms or behaviours. Poverty is now the biggest contributor to mental health concerns, he said.
The NUS said that if students were not able to socialise because they couldn’t afford a coffee, there were inevitable mental health impacts from that too.
Three dedicated hubs for wellbeing have been established at the three North Warwickshire and South Leicestershire campuses to ensure all students can access support. Colleges across the board have cited increasing demand on welfare or student support staff.
Elsewhere, the lack of free school meals support during the holidays has been cited as a concern.
Purver said that its programme to feed students during the six-week summer break is set to cost around £150,000 of the college’s own funds, but she said it was “the right thing to do”.
For Cornwall College, which facilitates students from two education authority areas, the situation is more complex. Cornwall Council has not continued its free school meals provision in holidays, instead offering families the chance to apply for support, but Devon County Council has. This left the college finding additional sources of funding to ensure students in the Cornwall local authority area were not disadvantaged.
Among the support college leaders have said they would like to see are free school meals provision being extended into the holidays, and ensuring families have suitable devices to prevent digital poverty, such as laptops, notepads and wifi connections.
Independent training provider Nacro has campaigned for more support for the most disadvantaged students, including calls for a specific pot of funding given directly to providers to be used as a pupil premium plus.
A spokesperson said: “This can be used by the provider to give additional help to the most at need students in the best way they see fit. It could be in an educational sense, such as extra tutoring or tools. But it could also be used to provide holistic support, such as providing transport, food, clothing and helping support learners with expenses.”