The Hidden Reality of Student Debt

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Achieving a degree is expensive, right? Whether it’s by our teachers, our parents or the media, from the moment we begin filling in our UCAS forms, to the moment we graduate, we’re constantly reminded that we’ll be paying £9250 a year tuition fees, plus accommodation and cost of living.

But we’re also reassured that all of this will be covered by 2 loans from Student Finance, one for tuition and one for maintenance, non-repayable until we’re earning over £25,000 a year, and written off after 30 years. Effectively, for the duration of our education, we’re told, we’ll be getting free education and housing; there’ll be no need to worry about teaching or living costs until we’re earning a good salary. There may be exams and essays and coursework and an incredible amount of reading to do, but at least money is one thing we won’t have to worry about whilst at University, right?

Wrong. According to the results of Save the Student’s National Student Accommodation Survey 2018, which questioned over 2000 students around the UK about their outgoings, students are increasingly struggling to afford to live at university, with many surviving on as little as £1 a day.

So, what’s causing this problem?  After all, the government does provide the maintenance loan in order to make university study more viable. Is it simply that students are going mad the moment their loan arrives in their bank account, bingeing on bargain booze and ordering groceries from Booths or Ocado? Not quite.

According to Save the Student, the high prices attached to university accommodation may be to blame. As higher education is increasingly marketised, universities are coming under more and more pressure to attract students, and stand out from the competition. One of the ways that they often look to do this is by providing an ever-more luxurious standard of accommodation; reassuring prospective students and their parents that student life no longer means crowded kitchens and queuing for the bathroom, but instead can be comfortable and sophisticated.

While this may seem appealing in some respects (after all, who doesn’t love an ensuite?), it does come at a cost. Furthermore, the large growth in the number of students over the past few decades has meant that this group of wealthy students has increasingly caught the attention of potential investors as a lucrative demographic to target. More and more people are joining the ranks of HMO landlords; with money on their minds as opposed to student welfare.

This has led to UK students facing progressively extortionate accommodation fees. In fact, the results of the Save the Student Survey indicate that the average cost of university accommodation in Britain is now so high, it almost outpaces the average maintenance loan. The average student rent equates to £130.59 a week, compared to an average maintenance loan payment of £138.85 a week; leaving students with less than £8 a week to cover food and other living costs.

Admittedly, the cost of accommodation at Lancaster isn’t as high as in other student hotspots such as Durham or London. Privately, off-campus, accommodation typically ranges in cost between £90 and £100 a week; whilst on-campus it varies from just £88.83 in Bowland’s standard rooms, to £161.77 in a single studio flat. However, whilst on the surface there appears to be plenty of affordable options available, in reality, for many students, this is not the case. 65% of Lancaster’s university accommodation is superior ensuite, costing £136.01-£144.97 a week. This means that if you’re a first year coming through clearing and want to live on campus, chances are you will be allocated a room of this type – regardless of whether or not you can feasibly afford it.

Even though living off-campus is a much more affordable option, it still only leaves around £40 a week to live on, which hardly leaves one living in the lap of luxury once food, transport and society/sport costs have been factored in.

According to Save the Student, worrying about the cost of rent not only leaves students trying to cut back on everyday expenses such as food or heating, it can also have a detrimental effect on their mental health too, even impacting upon their future prospects. In their survey, 45% of students reported that worrying about covering their living costs negatively impacted their mental health last year, with 31% even admitting that the worry, and a shortage of funds, affected their ability to study too.

Perhaps even more concerning, research carried out by student financial advisors Blackbullion amongst 2000 students at the University of Surrey found that 21% of students had had to resort to using credit cards, personal bank loans, and pay day loans to try and cover living costs in 2018; with some even resorting to partaking in “research trials”, gambling – and even sex work.

At a more basic level, a lack of spare cash can leave students missing out on enrichment activities such as society events, sports teams, travel and careers events: exactly the kinds of activities that can enhance their future employability prospects. So, if you find yourself struggling to afford your living costs, what can you do?

Firstly, speak to someone. At Lancaster, there is a team Student Funding Service Advisors on campus, located at the Base. Whilst they can offer advice on how to adequately budget, if you find yourself in more serious financial difficulty, they can also help you to apply for the Lancaster Opportunity and Access Fund (LOAF), which is a non-repayable grant, given to students whose income is less than their expenditure over the academic year or have faced higher than expected costs or a sudden financial emergency. Alternatively, they may help you to access financial assistance from your college, in the form of a short-term, college-specific bridging loan. The University doesn’t want you to drop out due to personal financial issues, so will do their best to help you.

If you’re simply looking to reduce your living costs, there are also a number of measures that you can take. One good cost-cutting measure is to buy your food in bulk from the supermarket when it’s on offer, or visiting the supermarket later in the evening, when food nearing its use-by-date is often available at reduced prices. Buying larger portions of meat or vegetables, cooking in bulk and then freezing is another way to save money, as is bringing your own packed lunch to campus. You can even justify pre-drinking before a night out as a cost cutting measure!

For more information, or to arrange to speak to someone, you can visit the university’s money website. Other websites, such as and also offer tips and advice.

If you don’t feel comfortable about approaching a member of staff, you can always talk about your worries anonymously and get some more information by using the university’s Nightline service, either calling on 01524 59 44 44, or using instant message:

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