Students and Financial Stress

NatWest’s Student Living Index came out this month, promoted as a way of helping students to know which University is right for them by showing them the most affordable UK cities to live in, according to the students they asked. There’s very little information on the methodology of the survey, but what we do know is that it’s in its sixth year and this year they asked 3,604 students across 35 university cities how much they spend on food, rent, and social expenses and claim that “the results shed light on what it's really like to be a university student in 2019.”

2% of responses were from students in Poole, which includes Bournemouth University and the Arts University Bournemouth. As the questions asked in the survey were based on student responses, it’s fair to say that the survey is not just looking at Poole, as students mostly live and socialise in Bournemouth, but for the purpose of this policy update I’ll refer to Poole throughout.

The report is broken up into 5 sections with further sub-sections:

  1. Cost of Living
    • Student Living Index
  2. Sources of Income
  3. Activities
  4. Spending
    • Monthly expenditure on Living expenses
    • Expected costs
    • Money management
  5. Picking a University
    • Motivations and expectations
    • Wellbeing and sustainability

From what the report lacks in explanation on methodology, is made up for by the impressive infographics and easy-to-read style. Further, when cross-referenced with other more reputable reports such as the Government’s latest Student income and expenditure survey (SIES 14-15) and NUS’ Poverty Commission Report 2018, then the Student Living Index makes for an interesting read and is worth looking at. I’ve put together some key points of interest below under the report sections.

Cost of Living

NatWest calculates their Student Living Index by adding average monthly living and accommodation costs and dividing this by the average monthly income. The report states that overall the cost of living for students has decreased by 4% since 2018 which makes similar claims to the Government’s SIES report. However, both reports use all sources of income to calculate students’ financial living situations, whereas the NUS Poverty Commission report looks at how much of a shortfall exists beyond student loans, which better demonstrates the pressures on students to find other sources of income.

The NUS Poverty Commission Report 2018 used the information from the Government’s latest SIES report to compare course and living costs with potential income sources from the student loan system which showed that students could expect a financial shortfall of £8,710 outside of London and £10,531 inside London (see appendix 1, page 67). NUS notes rising renting costs as the most significant reason for this.

Based from the answers students gave in the NatWest report, Poole comes out 23rd out of 35 for the most affordable city; much further below neighbouring cities in the survey Southampton (4th) and Portsmouth (9th).

Sources of Income

On average the NatWest report shows that students financially rely foremost on Student loan, followed by parents and family and then term time work, however when you look at how Poole comes out under these headings, students rely much more on supplementing their income with term time work rather than parents and family. Poole comes out 2nd for term time work contributing to their monthly income; 10th for student loan contributing to their monthly income; and 31st for parents or family contributing to their monthly income.

Activities

The report shows an almost 10hour drop in time spent on academic studies on average; Poole comes out 30th for average time spent on academic studies and 2nd for students spending significant time on part-time work- an average of 23.5 hours a month. The UK sector average according to the report is 14.2 hours but it states that 62% of all UK students do not spend any time in a part time job at all. This is an increase from the 48% figure which the Government SIES report has on UK full-time students not undertaking paid work.

Comparatively, the Government’s Student income and expenditure survey (SIES) 2014-2015 results showed that 52% of full-time students surveyed did some form of paid work during the academic year, working on average just over 10 hours per week on average with some more than this, and this accounted for 10% of their average total income. For part-time students, which make up around 40% of all undergraduates (see MSE), 83% worked alongside their studies with most in continuous rather than casual jobs and this represented 73% of their average total income.

Spending

It states that 1 in 4 students find managing their money stressful and unfortunately of all students asked, Poole comes out on top for students feeling stressed about their finances. The report also states that 43% of UK students have found that they are running out of money before the end of the semester.

Poole came 2nd for the average amount that students spend each month on household bills at £53.30 a month, £22.60 over the UK student average; and 20th for monthly rent (just below average UK).

Unsurprisingly, 32% of students surveyed rely on their overdraft when they are running low on money and a further 8% rely on credit cards.

Picking a University

Based on the survey responses, Poole students were above the UK average for feeling stressed by their University degree, but also above the UK average for enjoying their degree.

Poole came out 5th for their University being very committed to promoting sustainability on campus and a disappointing 29th for being satisfied with their University’s support on mental health despite 1 in 4 students across the UK being very satisfied. Given Poole came out 1st for financial stress and worries and being 30th for feeling supported by their University to manage their money, there seems some clear fixes where Universities in Poole could help students with their mental health.

Conclusions

Regardless of how reputable or not we think this report may be, when comparing it with the latest Government Student Income and Expenditure survey (SIES) and NUS’ Poverty Commission report, it tells a supported story about the current mind sets of students around the UK. Furthermore, it’s engaging prospective students with a topic which is near the top of their agenda: Can they afford to go to University? This increasing worry has been shown in the latest Government’s Student income and expenditure survey 2014-2015 which shows the impact that the cost of fees and the availability of funding and financial support is having on people’s decisions to go on to Higher Education study. This includes an increase in people saying they would not have studied at all without funding. (See page 21).

Students in Poole coming out of the NatWest report as the most stressed about their finances out of all 35 cities surveyed is a concern. Perhaps this can be partly explained by how much time Poole students seem to comparatively spend on part-time work to make-up for the financial shortfall in their living and accommodation costs after their loan, with much less support from parents and family.

Looking at the responses from Poole shows that the NatWest Student Living Index can paint a misleading picture about the affordability of certain cities if a considerable amount of students are only affording to live there by taking away time from study to take up part time work. This is certainly a finding that came out of a student consultation event on Access and Participation that BU’s Students’ Union held with students from widening participation backgrounds back in May.

Despite this, the NatWest report does help to show how much financial stresses can negatively impact on the mental health of students and more can be done to help students manage their finances. Perhaps Education Secretary Damian Hinds’ ‘Leap Skills workshops’ developed by Unite Students preparing sixth formers for University life will help somewhat with this.

The affordability and financing of Higher Education has been on the agenda for a long time, especially in regards to social mobility. We are still hotly anticipating the influence that the Augur review will have on this debate, once the leadership election finally comes to a decision. Until then, it’s very much a case of watch this space.

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