The cost of living crisis: What can colleges and universities do?

September 16 2022

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The growing cost of living crisis will have serious consequences for student mental health. Here's how, and what universities and colleges can do about it.

Student cost of living and mental health

For a long time, students have occupied a precarious financial position, leaving them even more vulnerable to current rising costs of living. In 2018 for example, Save the Student reported that the average rent for student accommodation in the UK totalled £131 a week, leaving a student on a typical maintenance loan with a remaining £8 a week for all other essential living costs[1]. Fast-forward to 2022 and the average UK student maintenance loan is estimated to be £340 less per month than average living costs[2]. As a result, 96% of UK students (n=3417) report further reducing expenditure on essentials[3], 11% report using foodbanks, and 12% (n= 3,528) report homelessness and/or housing insecurity[4]. These financial challenges are not distributed evenly, with particular socio-demographics, such as working class students, care leavers, and ethnic minorities at greatest risk of financial difficulties[5].

With approximately 77% of students already relying on precarious part-time employment in the retail and services industry[6] and with these industries predicted to contract as consumer spending falls[7], limited opportunities to increase student income further and rising living costs are likely to be a source of significant anxiety. Added to this, students are expressing less confidence in finding a job after university, and lower expectations for their graduate starting salary to repay their loan[8]. it is little surprise therefore that 35% of students have considering dropping out of university altogether for financial reasons[9]. Crucially, where evidence has consistently shown that financial difficulties predict poorer mental health outcomes in a student

population - including depression, anxiety, extreme eating attitudes, and psychosis[10] [11] [12] -  the current cost of living crisis poses a significant threat to student mental health.



There are several things universities and colleges can do to help.

1. Ensure clear dialogue, advice, and guidance.

Where evidence has shown that shame mediates the experience of financial difficulties on mental health[13], it is essential that universities and colleges accept and openly acknowledge that financial difficulties are structurally widespread among their community. In doing so, it is imperative that universities actively engage and listen to their student communities to understand the lived experiences of different student groups and focus support accordingly. Many students will be living independently for the first time and will benefit from clear ongoing advice and guidance on finances, budgeting, and available financial assistance from a respectable and relatable source. 

2. Work with student accommodation providers.

Where student accommodation has become increasingly outsourced to private providers and subject to rising market costs, universities and colleges should work with private accommodation providers and landlords to ensure that rents are affordable and maintenance is acceptable.

3. Work with your Student Union, Student Association or wider student body.

Gaining traction at a local and national government level for necessary financial intervention for students will require universities and colleges to mobilise their institutional profile to amplify the student voice and advocate student demands.

4. Eliminate the financial barriers to social and academic integration.

Every year, students experience financial barriers to the student experience, with the National Union of Students previously reporting that 69% of undergraduate students have to pay for resources necessary to even complete their course. So that financial risks to mental health do not compound academic and social risk factors, it is imperative that universities and colleges ensure that there these costs are eliminated. Appropriate steps could be to ensure provision of online learning to minimise transport costs, blocked timetabling of academic commitments to enable students greater flexibility for part-time employment, and ensure costs

of social activities (including transport costs) are removed.

5. Implement fair and transparent financial hardship programmes.

Where financial hardship initiatives and bursaries have been found to positively impact on student wellbeing[14], universities should ensure maximum resource is allocated to these schemes and that any eligibility conditions are conducted sensitively and transparently.


Given rising costs of living, it is essential that universities and colleges take action to support student mental health.


Come along to our upcoming free webinar on the cost of living crisis, financial wellbeing and our mental health. 


Book here



[1] Save the Student, 2018. Student Money Survey Results.

[2] Save the Student, [2021]. Student Money Survey Results

[3] Save the Student [2021]. Student Money Survey Results

[4] National Union of Students, (2022). Cost of Living Students and Apprentices.

[5] Kousoulis, A., McDaid, S., Crepaz-Keay, D., Solomon, S., Lombardo, C., Yap, J., Weeks, L., O'Sullivan, C., Baird, R., Grange, R., Giugliano, T., Thorpe, L., Knifton, L., Rowland, M., van Bortel, T., John, A., Lee, S., Morton, A., & Davidson, G. (2020). The COVID-19 Pandemic, Financial Inequality, and Mental Health. Mental Health Foundation. 

[6] BBC, 2015.  Increase in University Students 'Working To Fund Studies'.

[7] Hawkins, E. (2022). Warnings of a profit crisis for retailers as margins shrink in the past decade.

[8] Save the Student [2021]. Student Money Survey Results

[9] National Union of Students, (2022). Cost of Living Students and Apprentices.

[10] Richardson, T., Yeebo, M., Jansen, M., Elliott, P., Roberts, R. 2018). Financial Difficulties and Psychosis Risk in British Undergraduate Students: A Longitudinal Analysis. Journal of Public Mental Health, 17(2):61-68.

[11] Richardson, T., Elliott, P., Roberts, R., & Jansen, M. (2017). A Longitudinal Study of Financial Difficulties and Mental Health in a National Sample of British Undergraduate Students. Community Mental Health Journal, 53(3), 344–352.

[12] Richardson, T., Elliott, P., Waller, G., & Bell, L. (2015). Longitudinal Relationships Between Financial Difficulties and Eating Attitudes in Undergraduate Students. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 48(5), 517–521.

[13] Frankham, C., Richardson, T. & Maguire, N. (2020). Do Locus of Control, Self-esteem, Hope and Shame Mediate the Relationship Between Financial Hardship and Mental Health?. Community Mental Health Journal, 56 (1), 404–415.

[14] Boatman, A., & Long, B. T. (2016). Does Financial Aid Impact College Student Engagement?. Research in Higher Education, 57(6), 653-681.

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