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Universities demand more help for poorest students in England

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University leaders have stepped up calls for ministers to boost financial support in England for students from the poorest backgrounds after new research showed inflation-busting rises in the cost of housing.

The demands follow a report that found the average annual rent for private student accommodation outside London for the 2023-24 academic year would be £10,227, compared to the maximum maintenance loan of £9,978.

The study by accountants PwC and StudentCrowd, a digital platform for the higher education sector, found that high energy bills coupled with increased staffing, construction and debt-servicing costs were all contributing to steep price rises for private student accommodation.

University leaders said rising living costs were putting students under more financial pressure, leading many to work rather than focus on studies and making tertiary education increasingly unaffordable for young people from less well-off households.

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, said the funding gap was “particularly concerning” given that maintenance loans for students in England would increase by only 2.8 per cent in 2023-24 — well below anticipated inflation levels for the year ahead.

“We continue to urge the government to address flaws in the maintenance loans system and uplift loans so they reflect actual inflation,” he added.

Universities UK, the sector lobby group representing more than 140 higher education institutions, said the 2.8 per cent increase in maintenance loans was “inadequate” and that while universities had recently intervened with help for students from low-income backgrounds, more was needed.

“With inflation still high, it’s imperative that the maintenance support package is reviewed,” added the group.

Student maintenance grants came to an end in 2016-17 and were replaced by loans, whose value has shrunk in real terms because of high inflation, according to a report released in January by the House of Commons library. 

In 2022, an independent review commissioned by the government into post-18 education recommended the reintroduction of maintenance grants of at least £3,000 for the most disadvantaged students, but ministers rejected the idea. 

Sir Chris Husbands, outgoing vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said there was an “urgent need” for the government to look again at student maintenance arrangements.

“The worst off students, who are unable to rely on the ‘bank of mum and dad’, are being forced to make difficult choices about the balance between part-time working and study, about what and when to eat,” he added. “This is just unfair.”

Privately-owned purpose-built student accommodation has grown as a share of overall housing in recent years. It is either rented directly to students by developers, or via university authorities, depending on the contract arrangements. 

Some 30 per cent of the UK’s total full-time student population of 2.4mn live in this type of accommodation, according to the report, but it warned that with only 678,000 such beds available in the UK, “demand is outstripping supply”.

Bristol, Glasgow, Durham and Bath were among the university cities where accommodation for the 2022-23 academic year was “almost or completely unavailable” by the end of October last year, PwC and StudentCrowd found.

Some institutions experienced particular difficulties after accepting large numbers of extra students because of inflated A-level grades during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the report predicted pressures would be spread more broadly in 2023-24.

Manchester and Glasgow were among the universities with the highest increases in weekly rents — with prices rising 21 and 19 per cent respectively this academic year — while Oxford experienced a more modest jump of 8 per cent. 

The Department for Education said it had “made £276mn available this academic year through the Office for Students, which universities can use to top up their own bursary, scholarship and hardship support schemes”.

“Many universities have done a good job to support students . . . and we urge students who are worried about their circumstances to speak to their university,” it added.

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