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Supporting students through the cost of living crisis

26 June 2023

Last year’s cost of living episode of Accommodation Matters proved to be the most popular yet – but more than a year on, how has the cost of living crisis moved on, and what does the cost of living picture look like for students in 2023?

Our expert panel explores a wide range of talking points including food inflation, student maintenance loans, stigmas around seeking help with financial issues, challenges with student accommodation, and what university and accommodation teams can do (and are doing) to support students at this tough time.

Hosted by Jenny Shaw, HE External Engagement Director at Unite Students, this episode’s guests include:

  • Vivi Friedgut, CEO at Blackbullion
  • Jim Dickinson, Associate Editor of Wonkhe and host of the Wonkhe Show
  • Becca Hayhurst, Head of Student Support at Unite Students

You can listen to the episode, or read the transcript, below.

Supporting students through the cost of living crisis’ podcast transcript

Jenny Shaw: Last April, we recorded a podcast about the rising cost of living not knowing that this was to become our most popular episode to date. Of course, this is something that’s been affecting all of our lives as it continues to play out. Today, we’re revisiting this topic, looking at what it means for student accommodation, and most importantly, what we can do on a practical level to help students.

Welcome once again to Accommodation Matters, your monthly deep dive into the big issues affecting student accommodation. I’m Jenny Shaw, and as usual, I have with me a panel of experts. Vivi Friedgut is the CEO of Blackbullion. Hi, Vivi.

Vivi Friedgut: Good morning. Good morning.

Jenny: Jim Dickinson is Associate Editor at Wonkhe and sometime presenter of the Wonkhe Show. Hi, Jim.

Jim: Good morning.

Jenny: Becca Hayhurst is Head of Student Support for Unite Students. Hi, Becca.

Becca Hayhurst: Hi, Jenny.

Jenny: We’re going to get straight into it. Vivi, last April, you said, “This is just the start. This isn’t the end.” I went back and just reviewed what we talked about last year, and that just felt incredibly prescient. You were absolutely right. Where are we now? Is it more of the same or have things changed?

Vivi: It’s one of those times you don’t want to be right. [laughs] It’s most unfortunate, but it was somewhat inevitable. The cost-of-living crisis for students is echoing the cost-of-living crisis on a national level, which is just a reflection of what’s happening on a global scale. Students are particularly hit because of their personal circumstances, but this is a global problem.

Hopefully, I’ll be right when I say in six months’ time, things might be starting to get better – inflation looks like it’s starting to come down. I’m hoping that we’re starting to get to the end of this thing, but it’s still going to take six to nine months.

Jenny: You were right last time – let’s hope you’re right this time as well. I can see some fingers being crossed there. You also said that the government hadn’t mentioned maintenance support at all. I’m going to come to you, Jim. Have they mentioned it yet?

Jim: [chuckles] Well, that’s the question. Look, if we’re looking back to last April, even though some cost-of-living initiatives had already kicked in from government, as ever, almost none of them were designed around students. Of course, for home-domiciled students, maintenance support did not go up by the level of inflation last September. I guess we’ll come on to the way in which it won’t do that either this coming September. For home-domiciled students, things have got in real terms significantly worse.

I guess the other thing is that for international students, last summer, I had a look at the cost-of-living information that universities were putting out for students, and almost none of them had updated that cost of living information for the realities of what people were going to be facing this academic year. What that means when you combine that with the amount of money that you need in your bank account to get into the country not having risen significantly either, it looks like that we hurtled into last September not really being clear with international students just how expensive Britain was becoming. I guess the rest is history.

Jenny: Thanks, Jim. Becca, I’m going to jump to you if that’s okay because you’ve been doing a piece of pilot work with some universities around student support. I think it’s thrown out a bit of a heads up as to who is being left out at the moment, which groups of students are not particularly well covered with the current support systems, and international students do sometimes come up there. Is there anything you’re able to say about that?

Becca: Yes, absolutely. We know that there’s already loads of fantastic work going on across the HE sector to support students, things like access to learning funds, and grants. Additional support for students is essential and it’s really helpful to those students that need it. There are often students who aren’t eligible for one reason or another. Some of our international students find it difficult to access that support, and also difficult to ask for support. I think that the other part of it is knowing that you can ask them what’s available to you.

We felt that as the biggest accommodation provider, we had a role to play in helping and bridging that gap a little bit. We can’t bridge it fully, sadly. It’s frustrating that we even find ourselves in this position, but we knew that we could make a difference. We introduced our Aldi scheme. We have Aldi vouchers that we are giving out to students, but we also felt that it wasn’t our role to give those out directly. The expertise is already in our universities to be able to identify who needs that support and how they can help. It’s very much a collaborative partnership.

One of our HE partners has done some great work around food pantries, and stocking those pantries for students so that they can access things that they need. Those essentials that they might not feel comfortable asking for, but if they’re there and available to them, they can go and get those. Also using the vouchers to support those students who have debts and are unfortunately at risk of dropping out of university because they can’t afford it. Now, rent is always going to be a priority, and that needs to come first.

The place where people then start to cut back is on food, shampoo, conditioner, toiletries, feminine hygiene products, whatever it might be. Actually, that is where we felt that we could make a difference. Things like food vouchers buy a little bit of time while they apply for other things and get that additional support from the university. We wish we could do more, but the problem is bigger than us. It’s reassuring that there be things that in the near future, that should change, but that still doesn’t help us before September.

Jenny: Thanks, Becca. What has it taught you about who is missing out on the support that’s available at the moment? I know that you were very adamant when we set off on this journey that it has to reach students that are not being supported in other ways. It’s got to fill the gaps essentially. Where are those gaps?

Becca: The middle group is a gap, that’s the best way of describing them. We know from our own research that quite a lot of our students are affluent. If I remember, rightly, it’s almost 50% of our students that are affluent. The remainder are squeezed. When we enter a financial crisis like this, that squeezing becomes tighter and becomes harder to manage. There are students who have relatively good funding through student finance and it’s manageable, and it’s manageable alongside part-time jobs.

There are other students who find it more challenging, particularly where there’s multiple children from one family going to university, and those funds have to be spread more thinly. Then when students are going home, they’re also finding that they need or feel that they need to contribute at home as well, because the crisis isn’t just happening in their student accommodation, it’s happening in the family home. Those ones that are in that middle bracket where they’re all trying to make ends meet, parents, children, it becomes problematic.

We’ve also seen them that they’re looking for more paid work, struggling to balance studies alongside earning. We’re just creating this pressure cooker of challenges.

It is definitely that middle bracket from which we’ve seen those challenges. We also know that when they apply for university funding, they might not necessarily get all of it. For the majority, they won’t. It’s a case of us trying to help plug that gap, but the gap is bigger than we can plug. Obviously, part-time jobs using budgeting tools with Blackbullion and things like that will make a difference – things like our Resident Ambassador scheme, which gives them opportunities to earn in their accommodation so they don’t even need to go out to work and pay for those commuter costs.

That’s really where we want to be able to make a difference, is where it becomes a bit of a make-or-break. You either can afford university or you can’t. We shouldn’t have students in that position. They should all be able to access that education.

Jenny: Thanks, Becca. Now, Jim, when I invited you to take part in the show, you said you wanted to bang on about food. I’m really hoping that you will because you’ve written very recently on Wonkhe about students in food insecurity. Tell us all about it.

Jim: Look, I think moderately more pessimistic about the next 12 months than Vivi, for example. The reason for that is, whilst it is clear that headline inflation is now starting to come down, one thing that I would say about that – before I get on to food – is that I still meet really quite senior people that will say that because inflation is starting to come down, then all prices will start to come down. We’re not going into deflation, folks! There’s a difference between the rate of inflation falling and deflation.

Even with inflation starting to come down, what’s not starting to come down yet is the cost of food. Food inflation is still running at about 20%. Even more worryingly, the sorts of foods that you imagine students buy, the list of ingredients that appears in those cliched articles that come out in the Sunday supplements in September, the staples are all running at 25%, 26%, 27%, sometimes 30%.

That isn’t going to change. No one thinks that that’s going to change for at least the next seven, eight, nine months. That’s because all of the things that lead to the cost of food production going up were a problem a month ago, 6 months ago, and 12 months ago.

My point about that is I think that to some extent, year 1 of the cost-of-living crisis was an energy crisis, and to some extent, students were protected from the energy crisis if they were in accommodation. This September, first of all, rent will go up because it has been going up for all sorts of people in all sorts of settings. Crucially, unlike with energy bills, students won’t be protected from the increasing cost of food unless they happen to be one of the small group of students that’s on universal credit.

Whilst there was a level of protection for students over energy, if Year 2 is fundamentally going to be a cost of food crisis, we really are in potentially a very dark place because there are no such protections in terms of the cost of food and its impact for students. That means two things, I think. One, needing to be much clearer with students about how expensive it is to make a meal, how much a food shop costs, all of those things that students – particularly if they’re young students – might not know.

Also making sure that accommodation providers, higher education providers and so on are focused on food as an issue. Because we know that from all sorts of studies all around the world that food insecurity has a significant impact on mental health and outcomes.

Jenny: Thanks, Jim. Vivi, I’m going to bring you back in as an economist to respond to that. Any thoughts?

Vivi: No, look, I think Jim’s probably right on any number of those issues. I think something I’d like to kind of throw in is that regular inflation and student inflation are very different. It’s been really gratifying to see Jim ‘banging on’ about that for the last 12 months – but even when we talk about inflation, inflation as a headline number is meaningless anyway because it’s a huge basket of goods. What tends to bring it down are one-off purchases like cars which are getting cheaper, and laptops, which we’re not buying all the time.

At Blackbullion we’ve actually started to track what we are calling ‘student inflation’. Jim, I’ll be talking to you a lot more about this because I want your thoughts on it. We are tracking a basket of 15 goods bought by students and tracking them month-on-month.

If you speak about food in particular, there’s differences obviously between London and not London. I’m just looking at the stats comparing April to May: student food inflation is 23% in London. Now this is in a single month. Outside of London is just over 10%. There’s a huge difference with students on a month-by-month basis. Water has gone up like twofold in some parts of the country. We need to distinguish between regular inflation that we are told is national, and what’s actually happening to students.

Student inflation is actually very different in Central London versus outside of London, and is different in Manchester compared to Leeds. We’re tracking every university in the country’s cost of living, so that, again, with what Jim was saying, universities can give students a better idea of what it costs on their campus.

What we’re hoping to be able to do is support the sector in producing actual month-to-month regional and locale inflation numbers so that students know that if you go to a university in Manchester, your food is going to cost £50 a week. If you go to a university in Glasgow, your food’s going to cost £30 a week and in London it’s going to cost £80 a week or whatever it is, so that people are better informed.

It doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily make decisions based on that – but it is an additional data point because as Becca said, it is the reason people drop out: because they can’t afford to feed themselves and they can’t afford to heat themselves.

Jenny: Thanks, Vivi. Are you publishing the data? Is it on your website?

Vivi: We are going to be making it available. We just haven’t decided what yet is the most useful way of doing that. We’re talking to a range of people about how to do it, but it is monthly data and it is across the country so that it’s a giant piece of work.

Jenny: Thanks, Vivi. Jim, I was going to ask you, is there any evidence that this is deterring students from going to university in the first place, or is it encouraging them to stay living at home?

Jim: UCAS would have us believe that this has accelerated an already their trend for students to seek to go to university locally. It’s probably a bit early to work out whether or not this is having a big impact on demand more generally. I guess the thing that I would say both about demand and dropout is that demand remains very strong even when there’s an economic downturn. We know that countercyclical effect that’s about people wanting to better their lives and so on.

The UK is curiously good at trapping students at university once they’re there. As I’ve pointed out to people at various points on Friday for example, I was looking at the Netherlands’ National Student Survey scores. It remains the case that they have a significantly higher level of dropout than the UK but they have a much, much, much lower level of regret on exit. The HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey every year collects whether or not students would’ve made a different decision. The levels of regret and our levels of regret are really very high, and there are all sorts of good reasons for that but also all sorts of also problematic reasons.

Because it may well be that, having arrived at university full of expectation and hope – perhaps if they’re an international student, their family having saved up for a number of generations; perhaps as a home-domiciled student, all of the expectation for a number of years being that university is their next step on the conveyor belt – it then becomes very, very difficult for people to switch, or for people to change courses, or indeed for people to step off.

The danger is not so much that students aren’t coming or that they’re dropping out; the real danger is that they’re there having an absolutely miserable time. Not getting the formal outcomes that they would want and certainly not getting the informal outcomes that are woven into the mythology of Higher Education around social capital and participation in volunteering activities and so on and so on.

If it’s the case that the poorest students having a miserable time, not getting the outcomes, and then not getting the kind of employment outcomes later because they’re not able to participate in student life in the way that other students are, then that starts to raise real long-term questions about whether it was the right thing to do to get them in in the first place. Even though I think lots of people in the sector would pat themselves on the back about the number of students that we managed to get into the system these days from disadvantaged background.

Jenny: Thanks, Jim. I have many questions. The first one is, is it actually the case that the poorest students are having a miserable time?

Jim: Look, every single time someone has done a survey this year, that appears to be the evidence. You get to a point where you’re on the fifth or the sixth iteration of that survey work and it starts to become undeniable. There was a moment in the early part of the year where Russell Group Students’ Unions managed to colLabourate on a really very big study that demonstrated exactly that. A couple of weeks later, the Office for Students itself published its own polling from Youthsight that said that students from disadvantaged backgrounds were significantly more likely to be suffering from the mental health crisis, worse mental health outcomes, and so on.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s hitting the poorest students hardest, but I guess what I would say to people is, don’t think that because there hasn’t been a significant impact on non-continuing, that that means that people are having a dandy time doing all of the things that we think they’re doing. When the Sunday supplements write about student life in September.

Jenny: The government is very keen at the moment on degree apprenticeships and apprenticeships in general. Is that a viable route or are there enough places there to meet the demand? Is this something that may be a useful alternative route for those who might otherwise have quite a miserable time at university?

Jim: We obviously should be very careful about the idea that, there was a moment recently when Robert Halfon admitted – almost by accident in the way that his speech had been written – that disadvantaged and low-income students really do need these other alternatives because they might be deterred by debt and costs. As ever, he was talking about degree apprenticeships as a useful alternative. We need to be careful about the idea that low-income students should have to choose that route where everyone else can choose whichever route.

Because if that’s where we are, we are never going to deal with those kind of parity of esteem issues that ministers have been banging on about for the best part of the century when they’re talking about the difference between academic education and skills education.

Degree apprenticeships – the biggest problem here is supply. This is a tiny part of the sector. The government spends all of its time trying to stimulate demand. Demand looks fairly healthy; it’s supply. If the government put as much effort into sorting the funding and persuading employers that degree apprenticeships were a jolly good idea as much as the amount of time it spends winding people up around supply, then maybe we would get somewhere. As it stands, unless something significant and radical changes on the supply of degree apprenticeships, it’s going to remain a tiny part of the sector.

Jenny: Thank you. Just one other political question, what can we expect in terms of student maintenance support under a potential Labour government?

Jim: That’s a very good question. What we don’t yet have is any real clarity from a potential Labour government on whether it would fix the bottom-line issue. The bottom-line issue is that the total value of maintenance support is now falling further and further behind where it ought to be in comparison to student costs.

One of the things that’s interesting about that, I guess, is that the government about four years ago commissioned a student income and expenditure survey to go into detail on what students income and costs were. We know it has the results. It still hasn’t published those results. We are hurling therefore into a position this September where in Wales, student maintenance isn’t too bad. There are no parental thresholds determining how much you get based on your family’s income. The amount that you get is anchored umbilically to the living wage.

What that means is that whilst there are still some problems with cost of living in Wales, things are going up. The big question for Labour will be if there’s a Labour government in Wales that is doing that, the other Labour Party positions going into a general election either would be saying that Wales is wasting its money or ought to be bringing the level up to Wales because this September, for the first time, Wales maintenance package will be better than Scotland, better than England, and better than Northern Ireland. There are big questions I think for Labour.

Jenny: Vivi, can I come to you because what are your reflections on how can the circle be squared? We’ve got a growing percentage of young people going to university. We’ve got UCAS saying there’s going to be a million applicants by the end of the decade. How do we support maintenance of students who mostly want to live away from home at this scale?

Vivi: It’s tough. I’d love to spend hours talking about what government can and can’t do because I actually think a lot of the levers are already there. I don’t think we need a huge amount of creative thinking. We just need political will to decide that this is important or to decide that it isn’t important and move out of the picture.

The question is how do we support students and how do we help students? At the end of the day, students are not 2.5 million people. It’s one plus one plus one for each of whom we want better life outcomes, we want them to live the life that they want to be able to build the future that they want. Not just for them but for society as a whole.

We’re all going to retire at some point and if there’s not young people who are able to pay taxes and run the country, then we’re all in trouble. I think we need to stop looking at this as a student problem as much as a national problem in a global economy, which is a knowledge economy, which ultimately comes down to a lot of the stuff that comes out of uni. That’s the macro picture.

At the micro level, I think there are a bunch of things that we are not necessarily done that can be supporting students. One of the things I know we spoke about last time we chatted was around things like scholarships. Unite Students obviously has a great package of scholarships available. The national scholarship picture is about £2 million. For context, the United States is $180 billion. Now, the US is a very different system – thank God, hopefully we’re not going down that path – but $180 billion provided by the corporate sector to support young people is something that we should see how we can replicate to some degree here.

We’re trying to create that story and there’s a bit of a buzz and we’ve added £500,000 worth in the last few months. Companies are really keen to be seen to care about this stuff, but if we can be building out more sources of funding and let the government sort itself out, I’m very nervous about any person saying, “Well, the government will sort it out in time for me to need it,” because government does not have a good track record in doing that. Not the Tories, not Labour, not the Democrats, not the Republicans. There’s no government in the world that has a good track record in doing this stuff.

How can we get the corporate sector to put its money where its mouth is and stop whining that young people, young graduates are “not fit for work” and actually put some money down. How can we help parents to start early if they are able to put some money aside to have some of that support? There are things that can be done, but we’re not talking about them because unfortunately, we keep saying government needs to solve it. I think government does need to solve it, but I’m not optimistic they’re going to do it fast enough.

Initiatives like the food initiative I think is great, but getting the corporate sector to pull its finger out, ensuring that universities make it easy for students to know what funding is available and how to access that funding can make a huge difference.

Obviously, financial education is really important. Students are in a tough spot, but a huge number of students are buying cryptocurrency. We also need to be honest about some of the movements that students can make, and then we need to create a much more positive, helpful, transparent environment for them.

Are there a bunch of things universities should be doing better? I say this with them as our clients: 100%. Are there things government should be doing better? A million percent, but at the end of the day, we need to help that individual student to put food on their table, to put light on in their room, and as Jim rightly said, get the networking skills, hang out with friends, go out, meet their boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever it is that they fancy doing because that’s 90% of the value of uni. The other 10% is the piece of paper.

As Becca said, if students are working multiple jobs and then they’re too tired to go to class and they’re too tired to socialize, then what’s the point?

Jenny: Thanks, Vivi. Great to get that big picture. I am going to bring it down to the frontline of accommodation now though and, Becca, I’m going to come to you on this because it is often that frontline team in accommodation that first gets to hear if a student is in financial difficulty. Sometimes it’s because they can’t pay their rent, sometimes it’s because they talk to someone late at night. That’s the start of a referral journey. How does that play out? How does that work in practice?

Becca: This is really an important topic for me. I’m quite passionate about it because I think those opportunities for early intervention are crucial in making a difference across a range of things, including financial support. We’re building this into the training that we are delivering our staff. How to look for those warning signs. Those warning signs could be really low-key – it could be, “Yes, I’ll pay my rent, but I’m going to sell something.” Well, why are students selling things?

I think it’s also important to think about it really broadly. What kinds of clues are they giving us that they might be struggling without actually saying it out loud – because  a really difficult thing to say is, “I don’t have any money and I can’t afford something and I need help.” Sometimes it’s about looking for those other clues. We’re building that into the training that we’re launching to our staff so that they’ll be equipped for September. Our financial support provision obviously is part of the solution, but actually, the crucial thing for us is about referring them on.

Our accommodation staff are fantastic, absolutely amazing, multi-skilled, sensitive, and supportive, but they’re not clinical professionals. They’re not financial advisors. They can’t necessarily give the solution and the support that the student needs. They can give that in-the-moment support. The crucial thing is about passing them on to the right people. We obviously work with Blackbullion. There is a tool to help them.

The other part of the solution is making sure that they’re connected with the right support of the university. Are they referred to the wellbeing team? Are there sources of financial support through the university, access to learning funds, grants, whatever else might be available to them.

I think education is part of it. Making sure they actually understand what’s available to them, how to manage their money, how to balance earning money and getting their degree. Jim touched on it before. I think it’s really important to think about beyond the classroom, what experience is a student getting? How do they access it? How can we do that on an affordable budget? Doing things in property, working with our student experience teams, with the students themselves to actually create that social environment that makes it easier to flourish, but also makes it easier to ask for help when you need it.

As long as we’ve then equipped people to be able to respond to that request for help or the warning sign that help is needed, then we’re in a better position to support those students. It’s really important for us to be able to look for those opportunities to make a difference so we don’t end up in those positions where students say, “I can’t afford to stay.” I think all of us have a part to play in that, the universities, the accommodation providers, even employers to some extent.

Jenny: One of the things I remember from way back, way before this financial crisis is colleagues in operations saying that there were students who would just avoid them if they couldn’t afford to pay the rent. They would just hide it. They couldn’t ask for that help. They didn’t think they could. They thought they would be a negative consequence to that. I thought that was something that was a bit heart-breaking really.

I know that there’s been a lot of work done about communicating to students that, yes, if you can’t pay rent, just talk to us. It’s going to be all right. We’re not going to come down on you or anything like that. We are going to help you and find places that will help you.

Becca: Some of it’s about destigmatising conversations around finances and the fact that we are all talking about it now and we’re talking about, “Yes, there is a crisis, but these are the things that we can do about it.” We’re talking about it in a collective way, in a holistic way. I think that’s part of it is destigmatising those conversations.

For us, that’s partly about improved signposting. It’s when we are reminding students about deadlines for payment of rent, that we’re also reminding them what’s available to them to help make it more manageable. Some people will struggle. We need to help those people. This is how you can access that help and that support. We include that in the letters that we send to students. We include it in things like we have a support for you, webpage for students. We have a toolkit for staff so that they’ve got the resources that they need where we talk about things in our campaigns like Winter Wellbeing Campaign or Mental Health Awareness Week.

Actually, finance is a topic that’s woven through all of that because we know in this current climate, it’s really important, but even moving forward once this cost-of-living crisis has subsided, hopefully depends when that’s going to be, but we have some confidence it’ll subside at some point. Life is still expensive, and you will still have to budget as a student or once you’ve graduated, there will always be things that come up always be curveballs where you can’t need fixing or things that you just haven’t expected that month.

This conversation and being able to build that financial language and education into our work is really important. Hopefully, moving forward we will be able to see the positive impact on our students and that they will feel able to say, “Hang on, I’m struggling this month.” Our staff will then feel equipped to be able to respond to that. I think talking about it and using the right language and being quite positive and proactive in our approach is crucial to that change.

Jim: One thing that I would say, Jenny, about the asking for help thing is if you think about for international students, the way the immigration system frames people’s ability to pay for things, the big message that we send to them is “You should have enough money on entry.” To some extent, that sometimes gives universities a problematic excuse to turn around to some of the student union offices I talk to and say, “That’s why we can’t have an international student hardship fund” – which is absolutely not true.

Much more importantly, drilled into the idea of international students when they arrive is that they must hide hardship because it might affect their immigration status. Now, the idea of talking, for example, to an accommodation provider about hardship, we might automatically assume that they would never think that accommodation providers would automatically tell the university and indeed tell the state.

All of the focus groups I’ve ever been in suggests that whether you’re talking about a student union officer, accommodation provider or university official, or indeed an immigration official, they all just meld into one. The danger I think is that in particular for international students, the fear of it all being washed away – all of the expectation, all of the investment, often the investment over generations to get to the UK to pursue the educational dream… The fear that asking for help might affect immigration status really does need a significant amount of effort to counter in terms of some of these messages.

Certainly, for providers that have got significant clusters of international students, I can’t recommend enough how important it is to stress to international students that if they ask for help, that that will be confidential. That nobody’s going to be phoning UK Border Force that afternoon and so on.

Jenny: Great tip. Thanks, Jim. Really important. I’m going to come to a really big elephant in the corner of the room which is that accommodation is the biggest expense for most students who live away from home and rents have gone up. You referenced this early, Jim – everyone’s rents have gone up everywhere. It is resource intensive, the costs have gone up in most cities, but of course the student maintenance package has not kept pace with that. I’m just going to ask for some broad thoughts on this. Where are we going with this?

Jim: In order to work out what you might do about it, you would have to try and work out why it is the case. It’s almost too easy to say, well, we’ve got a wider housing crisis – but hey, folks, we have a wider housing crisis!

One of the things though that I think is interesting is in most of the university towns and cities where we’ve been keeping a very close eye, it is absolutely true that there appears to be a very small collapse in the supply of rented accommodation. There is some evidence that some landlords are leaving the market, but there’s much more evidence of universities very, very rapidly increasing principally their international PGT populations.

The point about housing is, if you are in the middle of clearing and you are saying to yourself, “How many students can we admit?” You might have in your head, “Well, how many academics have we got? Is there anywhere to sit on a Tuesday lunchtime on campus? What capacity do we have in some of our support services?” I just know that the majority of universities aren’t sat there thinking, “Let’s do a proper analysis in terms of supply and demand on bed spaces and types of bed spaces in our local area.”

What that means is either students end up living much, much further away, much less likely to build that belonging in social capital and so on. Their transport costs are significant, their outcomes are worse and so on. Or they end up living in dangerous accommodation where there are too many people in a room and the landlord turns a blind eye and so on. Or rent just becomes incredibly high, because I remember what slide one was on Economics A-Level: you have to have a reasonable relationship between supply and demand.

One of my predictions, certainly for this September – because the lines on those graphs haven’t changed: it continues to be the case that one of the ways a university can get through its own inflation crisis is to recruit a significant number of international PGTs – is that we will see a real exacerbation of that crisis this September moving out of cities like Glasgow and Manchester and into far more towns and cities.

Sadly, I’ve got this bad feeling that it might take a really quite sharp and acute national crisis before we can get to a point where people can start to ask themselves, when we recruit a student that’s living away from home, is there a reasonable bet that they can access somewhere to live that is affordable, of decent quality, and with a reasonable distance to campus?

I would argue that’s a right that someone ought to think about in advance. Of course in the past it’s the market that has taken care of that rather than any particular sense of planning. I suspect that it’s planning that’s going to have to kick in here sooner rather than later.

Jenny: Don’t you think that that’s changing though, Jim? Because I would agree with you up until maybe a couple of years ago there was maybe the odd accommodation crisis in a particular city and everyone was thinking, “Well, thank God that that’s not happening here.”

It is a lot more widespread now. The accommodation colleagues that I know in universities, they seem to have now a much louder voice within the institution. It’s much more of a consideration. There’s longer term planning and thinking about, “If we’re recruiting these students, where are they going to live?” Because actually it’s terrible for the reputation of the university, they get splashed all over the papers. They get a reputation amongst international students if they can’t accommodate them reasonably. I think that’s changing.

Jim: Well, look, two or three Fridays ago, Universities UK took the unusual step of publishing Vice Chancellors’ advice on accommodation. For example, some of the advice in there was make sure that the people who handle inquiries and questions about accommodation are talking to the people who do the recruitment. Now, there’s two ways that you can frame that. One is to say you are right, Jenny, people are finally, even universities in UK are recognising that that conversation has to happen. There’s another version of that conversation that says, “Oh my God, that’s best practice. That hasn’t been already happening. Oh my God.”

The thing about when best practice comes out is that sometimes it reflects what seven or eight universities are doing and quite often it absolutely doesn’t reflect what 20 or 30 universities are doing. Half full and half empty as we both are respectively.

The point remains that it’s incredibly important when you recruit a student that’s living away from home who’s about to shell out huge amounts of money in fees, either in deferred payment or upfront, that there’s a reasonable bet that they’ll have somewhere to live that’s within a reasonable distance from campus of a reasonable quality and is affordable. If we can start to move towards everyone accepting that, that to some extent forms part of the responsibilities of universities when recruiting students, we’ll get somewhere.

Vivi: I completely agree with that. I think the challenge with accommodation, first of all, we are seeing private landlords moving out. Again, it shows how holistic all of these things are. If we say people shouldn’t be private landlords and then interest rates go up and so they sell properties because they can’t afford them and then those properties are used for other things, we’re going to see a decrease in supply. Again, everything is interconnected and we can’t just zoom in on individual components.

It also makes sense that universities are recruiting more international students because those international students pay more money than do domestic students. All of these things are connected. The challenge with accommodation is it can’t be solved tomorrow because you can’t suddenly put up another building. I was at a UUK event recently where a member of the audience representing one of the student unions said, “Well, that’s unacceptable and we need a solution now.” It’s like, well, that’s great but it’s very difficult to build a 300-room building in a week.

It just can’t be done. Not a prediction so much as being Australian, Aussies tend to not travel to university. You tend to live at home. I wonder whether we will see an increase in commuter student populations, whether we will see an increase in the number of students who are living at home and whether we start to see more of a shift towards students who are seeing university as more transactional, which is what it is in Australia.

You go to university partly for the experience, but mostly to graduate to get a job. It’s seen as a much more transactional experience than in the UK which more of a social holistic opportunity to grow and all of that. I wonder whether we’ll see a bit of an Australianisation – I’m just going to make up a word – of the way people view uni, whether we will simply see a bit of a cultural shift.

Jim: The other thing I’d say very briefly, Jenny, is to some extent the stock that we have, particularly in private PBSA, is largely built around the focus group preferences of the Chinese middle classes and home domiciled middle classes. I was in a focus group a couple of weeks ago with Indian students from two universities who were all saying that they would quite happily have a bunk situation of two students in a room.

Now, these are really uncomfortable conversations to have because they’re partly about, to some extent, starting to paint pictures of stereotypes around particular groups of students. They’re also really uncomfortable because you’re talking about private investment but the reality is, certainly in the US, two students in a room is very traditional.

I wonder whether, given the profile of the students that universities are now aggressively recruiting from particular markets, the stock is right, and whether there isn’t a really important set of conversations to be had between investors, private providers, and universities about the nature and character of students being recruited to make sure that the price sensitivity that we’re now starting to see in the market is properly reflected in the bed spaces that are being invested in.

Jenny: It’s a good point, Jim, thank you. Big thoughts, we’re putting the world to rights here. We are coming towards the end of our time, so I’m just going to bring us back to a quick-fire round on some practical tips. The question is, what is one nonobvious but helpful thing that accommodation teams could do for students in the next academic year? Becca, can I come to you first with this one?

Becca: We talked a lot about that holistic approach and I think for me, it’s about creating the right supportive environment so that people feel able to ask for help when they need it but if we create environments that are socially inclusive, affordable, allow for connection between students, and that peer to peer support. We’re more likely to create an environment where people feel either able to ask for help or offer help or look for signs and symptoms amongst their peers where they might be struggling. I think our accommodations have a role to play in facilitating that and helping to co-create that.

Jenny: Thanks, Becca. Jim?

Jim: Good work is massively important and I wonder whether accommodation teams couldn’t: one, ensure that they fully understand our employment rights system in the UK, so that when students are talking about dodgy work, there’s at least some signposting going on; and two, making sure that people know about vacancies that might be coming up. There’s some decent signposting because good quality vacancies are also really important for students but then also, next time a member of staff leaves from any team.

I think everyone, both in universities and accommodation providers, ought to just double check and ask themselves, is this a job that a student could do rather than a full-time member of career staff? Sometimes they’re a pain in the arse and sometimes they don’t turn up and sometimes they’ve got assessments, but in all, my experience tells me that paying students to do things is good for them and is often good for the organisation that’s doing it. Refocusing on student work, I think would be a really valuable contribution that accommodation providers could make.

Vivi: For the record, I couldn’t agree with that more. I think there’s only so much students can cut in terms of their spending, but there’s actually no upper limit to how much money they can make. We’ve never been in a more powerful time to take advantage of the online gig, freelance side hustle economy, and we’re not talking enough about that. Stay tuned for the Blackbullion app.

I would also echo what both Becca and Jim are saying, and I would just further highlight some of the “adulting” skills that are useful not just on campus, but also outside in life. How to put up a shelf, how to cook a meal, destigmatising money, as Becca said a handful of times – we could say it a thousand more times and it still wouldn’t be enough.

We have to make talking about money safe so that people don’t think that immigration is going to get called and some of the other issues that Jim has highlighted, but also just make it natural and native in the same way as you would any other part of your life because destigmatising it allows people to ask for help. It allows you to talk to your friends, which are always the first point of call but often friends don’t necessarily know any better than you do when it comes to some of these things. It does reduce mental health issues.

I hate the expression, but creating these safe environments in every element of the student life, particularly where they sleep and live and spend time with friends, is just so important. It doesn’t have to be a thing. It could just and should just be embedded within daily day-to-day life.

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