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Students: Cost of Living Support

Volume 723: debated on Monday 28 November 2022

I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), for her authenticity and passion for skills. My Department continues to work with the Office for Students to ensure that universities support students in hardship by drawing on the £261 million student premium. The Government have also introduced the Energy Prices Act 2022, which ensures that landlords pass energy bill discounts on to tenants, including students.

The Office for National Statistics has reported that more than half of students are facing financial difficulties and a quarter are taking on extra debts. Indeed, I recently met student union reps who confirmed that. Students must not be the forgotten victims of the cost of living crisis. The Government claim that they support learning for life, yet part-time, often mature students face particular challenges in the cost of living crisis. Will the Minister look at the Open University’s recommendations calling for the extension of maintenance loans to undergraduate students studying part time, an extension to parents’ living allowance and childcare grant for all part-time undergraduate students and the introduction of maintenance bursaries for undergraduate students who are in most need?

I have great admiration for the Open University and will of course look at those recommendations carefully. However, I reiterate that we are doing everything possible to help students with financial hardship. I mentioned the £261 million student premium and the help with energy bills meaning that students who are tenants of landlords will get up to £400. The student loan has been frozen for the past few years. Students facing hardship can apply for special hardship funds and can also have their living costs support reassessed. The hon. Member will know that, as has been highlighted, interest rates over the next couple of years will increase only in line with the retail price index.

I welcome the new Secretary of State and the rest of her team to the Front Bench. On 19 October, in a written parliamentary question, I asked the previous universities Minister, the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), whether she had conducted an equalities analysis of the impact of rising prices on students. In short, the Government had not, so do they have any idea of how the cost of living is affecting students from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds?

We know that the cost of living is affecting students from all backgrounds, and especially disadvantaged backgrounds. That is why, as I mentioned, students can draw on the £261 million student premium; why students facing hardship can access their university’s hardship fund; why students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who find that their living costs have increased significantly, can apply to have their costs reassessed; and why we have increased the maximum loans and grants by 2.3% this academic year to try to help students. In every possible way we are trying to help students who face financial hardship.