Several universities have given students one-off extra payments this year to support them during the cost of living crisisKatie Kasperson

At the start of the month, the Russell Group warned that students are being put under serious financial strain, as maintenance loans are not keeping up with inflation — a December report from the Institute for Fiscal studies confirms that the poorest students are over a grand worse off this academic year than last.

The government has since announced a “cost of living boost” for students — including a two year freeze on tuition fees — but the Russell Group called the package “disappointing”, saying that it still doesn’t address the issue of maintenance loans lagging behind inflation.

Cambridge is a member of the Russell Group and is by far one of the richest universities in the UK; its multi-billion dollar endowment is comparable only with Oxford’s. Yet a Varsity investigation into cost of living crisis responses across the country has revealed that Cambridge is giving significantly less extra support to its students than its Russell Group peers.

Some universities, such as Edinburgh and LSE, have frozen residential costs. Although the cost of studying in Cambridge is mitigated by short terms for those living in college, most colleges do not have enough accommodation to house all their students, and all have increased their rents. Those who are forced to live out are at the mercy of Cambridge’s rental market, where prices are some of the highest in the UK. One of the reasons private rent is so high in the city is that the uni owns or controls a large proportion of the city’s land.

Other measures taken to help students range from cash payments to cancelling library fines, and all universities are offering financial advice to their students. However, this investigation has chosen to focus on three key forms of support which most universities are providing in some form, to see how Cambridge’s offerings compare. These are: free or subsidised food; increases in available hardship funding; and one-off payments to students. We’ve included extraordinary uplifts in existing grants or bursaries in our survey of one-off payments.

One-off payments

Several universities have given students one-off extra payments this year to shield them from the worst effects of the cost of living crisis: Queen’s Belfast gave students from low-income households £400 each, and £150 to all other students, and Manchester gave £170 to all of their full time undergraduates. Other universities gave one-off payments to all students from lower income households, such as King’s College London, which gave £150 to those with an income of under £42,875, and £160 to those receiving its maximum bursary.

Many Russell Group members are also giving grant or bursary uplifts of up to £500, as in the case of Oxford, Leeds and UCL. Cambridge is offering no such one-off payments, nor extraordinary bursary bonuses, and did not answer when we asked them whether they had been considering similar measures.

A Cambridge spokesperson said that they recognise the “challenges that the rising cost of living crisis is bringing to many” and have “introduced a package of additional support for staff and students.”

They continued: “For staff, this includes an exceptional payment of 2% for 2022/23, and the reintroduction of the Staff Hardship Grant scheme.”

However, when the staff payment was announced in October, Cambridge UCU said the raise was “but a sticking plaster” compared to the scale of the cost of living crisis, claiming that the scheme “does nothing to mitigate the permanent reduction in our real income, or the preceding decade of below-inflation pay rises”. They also said that the increase “shows that they are scared by the threat of industrial action”, which will be continuing next month. At least ten other Russell Group members also gave extraordinary payments to staff members this year.

Hardship funding increases

A University spokesperson told Varsity: “For students, we have set aside an additional £500k for requests to the University’s Student Hardship Fund. This is additional to college hardship support.”

To contextualise this £500k cash injection, Varsity has obtained data from other Russell Group universities on how much they have added to similar hardship funds this academic year. Many had increased equivalent funds by double or triple the £500k pledged by Cambridge. Sheffield have committed an additional £2.5M to their financial support funds – five times Cambridge’s offering. Only three Russell Group universities which responded to our requests for information had increased hardship funding by less than Cambridge.

Students we’ve spoken to have also found hardship funding difficult to access, on a university and college level, one complaining that the process felt “invasive” and “like being on trial for my basic expenses”. Another claimed that he was initially turned away due to parental income, despite explaining that his parents’ circumstances had been dramatically affected by both the cost of living crisis and a family member suddenly needing paid social care.

Free or subsidised food

All but two other Russell Group members have confirmed to Varsity that they are providing students with free or cheaper food at university cafés or lecture sites, with measures such as: free snacks and breakfasts, 40p - £1.50 hot meals, emergency food parcels, and cheap meal deals. Newcastle has opened a food bank for students, and at least two other universities have plans to do the same.

Cambridge has been running a pilot programme of subsidised meals at West Hub since November, due to end at the end of next month; in one canteen, students can get £2 off the main meal deal at lunchtime. The University didn’t respond to questions about whether there were plans for this scheme to be expanded or extended.

Other than the West Hub pilot scheme, and although some colleges have reduced or fixed their hall prices, the University hasn’t made low-cost food available at lecture sites. This makes it hard for students, especially those at non-central colleges or with long contact hours, to access affordable hot meals at lunchtime.

Many other universities have also provided facilities on campuses or lecture sites to allow students to heat up or prepare food brought from home, so that they can save money while still getting a hot meal if they don’t have time to go back to accommodation in the middle of the day.

Support at other universities also must be contextualised by the fact that students at Cambridge (and Oxford) face unique restrictions on their ability to work during term times. Cambridge students are banned from during term unless they work for their college, and the availability of such work varies massively by college.

Students at Cambridge can work during vacations, but some told us that they’re now having to take secret jobs during term time to get by, even hiding it from their tutors for fear of disciplinary action. Many have highlighted concerns that financial worries are impacting their academic work. An NUS survey in September revealed that 90% of students nationwide said the crisis had negatively impacted their mental health.

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A Cambridge University spokesperson said: “Work is taking place to provide a robust estimate of the cost of living for Cambridge students, and how this is impacted by changes in prices. We will continue to do all we can to provide assistance to those experiencing financial pressures.”