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Students: Cost of Living

Volume 738: debated on Monday 23 October 2023

This year and last year, the Government have provided £94 billion of cost of living support in England. In education, more than a third of children get free school meals. University tuition fees have been frozen and we have provided £276 million of student premium to help the most disadvantaged students.[Official Report, 25 October 2023, Vol. 738, c. 5MC.]

During my latest meeting with student leaders in Canterbury, they told me that, often, new students will visit the food bank, the Campus Pantry, before they have even unpacked their bags or settled in. In the 2021-22 academic year, 45 students visited; by 2022-23, that number had risen to 301—a 650% rise in regular food bank users. They expect a similar rise this academic year. What will the Government do to help all those, including students and staff on campus, who are forced to turn to food banks?

I know the hon. Lady cares deeply about the welfare of her students. We are doing everything we can to help students with the cost of living. I mentioned the £276 million. One of her universities, Canterbury Christ Church University, provides a £600 bursary to students. Every family has received from the Government on average £3,300 for energy bills and other support. We are trying to be fair to the taxpayer, but fair to students and ensure the most disadvantaged are helped.

While the cost of food, heating and rent has rocketed, the value of the student maintenance loan has fallen by £1,500 in real terms since 2020-21. Recent research by the University of Nottingham Students’ Union revealed that the cost of living crisis is affecting students’ education, and their physical and mental health. It found that almost one in 10 students had a weekly budget of £20 or less after rent, and one in five had a weekly budget of £20 or less after rent and bills. Thirty-seven per cent had considered leaving university because of the difficulties they faced paying for essentials. Does the Minister think that these are acceptable conditions for students to be struggling under?

It is precisely because of the figures the hon. Lady sets out that we are helping students, with £276 million to try to ensure we help the most disadvantaged students. Her own university—she mentioned Nottingham University—gives a £1,000 bursary to disadvantaged students. We are also giving up to £90 billion of extra help to disadvantaged families, we have frozen tuition fees and we look at loan repayments if family incomes fall below 15%, so we are doing everything possible to support the most disadvantaged to get higher education.[Official Report, 25 October 2023, Vol. 738, c. 6MC.]

As we have heard, this is a very serious issue. Recent research from the National Union of Students shows that almost one in five full-time students work more than 20 hours per week alongside their studies—they are working even more than in previous years—and 40% of students say that work is having a negative impact on their studies. Students are clearly struggling with the Conservatives’ cost of living crisis. How does the Minister expect students to balance their studies and employment to pay their bills? Does he acknowledge that this is now forcing many students out of higher education?

Actually, the opposite is true. We have a record number of students going to university. Disadvantaged students are 71% more likely to go to university now than they were in 2010. We have a huge package of support. I have mentioned the £276 million for disadvantaged students. We are doing everything we can to help disadvantaged students. The hon. Gentleman criticises the money we are giving, but does not come up with a figure of his own. Warm words butter no parsnips.

The Minister mentions some things that are maybe trying to help these students, but recent Higher Education Policy Institute analysis shows that students who previously received free school meals are less likely to complete their degree and those who do are less likely to get a first or a 2:1. Support cannot stop once they get to university. Will he detail what support he is giving those students at every stage of their journey to make sure they really do have the same opportunities as those from more privileged backgrounds?

Many universities offer bursaries to students—I highlighted two examples to previous questioners—and we are doing everything possible to ensure that students who do courses get good skills and good jobs at the end. That is the purpose of our higher education reforms, which, as I understand it, the SNP opposed.