Helena Logah, a 24-year-old violin student at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, is worried about her finances. A freelance musician, all her part-time gigs were cancelled in 2020. “I lost about £10,000,” she says.
Ineligible for government maintenance support because her family income is too high, she has just enough money in the bank not to qualify for emergency funding from the school of music either.
Nearly a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, Ms Logah has seen her financial plans thrown into disarray, like thousands of other students. A shock which initially seemed it might last only a few weeks, has now extended into a second academic year with no end in sight.
Opportunities for part-time work have dwindled and top-up funding from family members is often in short supply, with unemployment rising and poorer households’ savings dwindling.
Yet the costs of tuition, accommodation and living expenses must still be met. Student dissatisfaction is growing over value-for-money for courses forced online and a much-reduced university experience.
The January lockdown in England arrived at the start of the university term, with most students told not to return to universities until at least mid-February and face-to-face teaching replaced by remote learning for most courses. This brought renewed demands for financial relief and cuts in rent for accommodation that students were unable to use.
“It’s an incredibly difficult situation for students at the moment,” says personal finance expert Iona Bain. “The combination of mental health struggles with financial pressures can really derail a student’s finances.”
Thousands of students signed a petition last spring calling for tuition fee refunds — demands which met with little success among universities facing serious threats to their finances. The government in December announced £20m of additional hardship funds to universities, yet some say much more is needed.
Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said in a statement: “There is a limit to what universities can continue to afford . . . University finances are increasingly stretched. We are urging the government to step up and provide additional funding to support those students who need it most.”
Because tuition is largely covered by long-term government loans, the most immediate financial concern is rent, says Ms Bain.
The average living costs of a student are about £795 a month, according to a survey last year by finance website Save The Student, with rent accounting for half of that. Maintenance loans, a type of government support aimed at covering living expenses for poorer students, typically fall short of those costs.
After student unions called for rent cuts, most universities offered some form of discount or financial help, as well as Unite, a private student accommodation provider. Student groups say they continue to face financial hardship and have organised dozens of rent strikes across the country.
Tuition fees, which run at up to £9,250 a year, are more of a long-term problem in financial terms. Most students cover these costs with government-backed loans, repaid out of income after leaving university for those earning a set minimum. After an eightfold increase in tuition fees since 1998, the average debt of a student on their graduation day in 2019 was £40,000.
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice-president of higher education at the National Union of Students, says: “The pandemic has exposed the flaws of an unsustainable model . . . Students feel [throughout this pandemic] they are really not getting what they are paying for.”
Students usually rely on extra money from the Bank of Mum and Dad to support their studies. But Katie Watts, a consumer expert at finance website MoneySavingExpert.com, says support has fallen short as household incomes have been hit by Covid-19. “It’s implicit that parents are expected to fill the gap,” says Ms Watts, “but if parents lose their income or earn less unexpectedly, how are students supposed to fund themselves?”
Extra help can come from grants, bursaries, and scholarships — often means-tested — and emergency funds, some linked to the pandemic, for covering unexpected costs like broken laptops.
David Gordon, general secretary of the London School of Economics student union, highlights the dire need for this kind of support. The union granted £89,800 through its hardship fund to students between mid-2019 and mid-2020, up from £16,700 in the previous period, and more demands are coming in. “We’re constantly running out of money,” he says.
What should I do if I want a rent refund?Some universities are providing refunds or discounts on rents. Look on your university website for information or contact the finance office to ask about support. Check what your tenancy agreement says about early termination, or if you are entitled to a rebate for the time you are not allowed to access the property. If this fails, contact your student union and see how they can help.
If renting privately, speak first to your landlord or letting agency. Ask for a rebate, making clear how a reduction would allow you to keep paying rent. Look for any breaking clause or discount terms in your contract. Charities such as Citizens Advice offer guidance on how to negotiate a discount.
What if I want a tuition fee refund?To get a tuition refund, you should first file a complaint with the university. If you can prove that the quality of your education has been reduced, you can claim a refund. If you don’t agree with the university's response to your claim, you can file a complaint with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education.
How to access emergency funds?Look on your university website to see if emergency funds are available and on the government website for information on accessing funding. Your student union may have funds, or information on charities and organisations that can help with grants. If your family’s income has declined by more than 15 per cent this year, you can request a maintenance loan reassessment from the government to receive a higher amount.