Manchester’s overused slogan “This is Manchester, we do things differently here” certainly rang true around this time last year. In November 2022, the University made national headlines after the Students’ Union Executive team rightly campaigned for all students to receive a £170 payment in response to the cost of living crisis.
It was the talk of the Ali G, with students able to use the payment how they wanted. To some, this meant that they could now afford Christmas presents; others put the payment forward towards the necessary costs of student life. There was a sense that the Students’ Union, at the cost of £9 million, was truly fulfilling its role of representing the interests of its students.
At the end of the first semester in 2022, students were feeling the brunt of the crisis. Inflation had reached a 41-year high at 11.1%. Food price inflation altered how students spent their budgets. Fuel prices added £700 to yearly household bills.
But the clue’s in the name. The “cost of living crisis” was, from late 2021 onwards, assumed to be something which would dip once international situations, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, had been somewhat resolved. Or the inflation rate had begun to fall.
Or when the economic impact of disruptive events – such as Brexit or COVID-19 – had settled. Or the economic measures taken by then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak, and exacerbated by Trussonomics, were pursued, U-turned, then pursued again. Or, it seems, when the cows come home.
Maybe it’s my own naivety which is glaringly obvious here, but in the same way that in March 2020, I thought I’d be off school for three weeks, I assumed that the cost of living crisis would be just that… an intense yet short-lived period of crisis.
Yet, we still live in a cost of living crisis. The very same one as last year. In fact, experts have begun to define the cost of living crisis to have begun at the end of 2021; I was a wrinkle-free fresher at that point. Maybe it’s time we called it a permacrisis.
Students, who are known to be financially insecure, particularly feel the affects of the crisis. Consumer prices were 4.6% higher in October 2023 than in 2022, with the biggest spike being in September 2023, just as we gallivanted back to University. Even at the back end of last term, food prices were 25.6% higher than in 2021 summer.
The Food Foundation calculated the price of a basket shop – made by adult women and men following a decent diet and reasonable budget, and without using any supermarket promotions – in September 2023. The Foundation reported that a woman’s basket shop has shot up by 23.9%, costing £50.76 in just one week. A man’s is higher, clocking in at £55.49.
But in November 2022, when the payment was announced, a woman and man’s weekly basket shops were less, standing at £47.13 and £50.78 respectively. Students will more than likely spend a lot less than these amounts – yet they’re still concerning given that, after paying rent and bills, some students are reportedly left with just £50 a month.
Students are very much still experiencing the tangible and real impacts of the cost of living permacrisis. At the risk of sounding like a finger-wagging moaner, where is the £170 for all students?
It feels like the Students’ Union has just forgotten about the extortionate cost of living. My cohort can still remember the days when a food shop cost around £20, and grab bags of Cadbury twirl bites cost £1. Not because we’re wearing lilac cardigans in a care home and can suddenly remember the most random details about our past which we wistfully gasp about to our grandchildren; this was only two years ago.
Students – their budgets, their mental health, their housing costs, even their savings (if they’re in a fortunate position to even have them) – have been squeezed like a wet sponge.
9 in 10 adults have seen an increase in their cost of living in just a month. 96% of students have reduced their expenditure. Worryingly, 92% of students feel that the cost of living has impacted their mental health.
One glaring issue facing students is the fact that student loans haven’t risen in line with inflation. It is estimated that students will miss out on £1,500. Let’s just skip over the fact that loans are reported to not even cover a student’s necessary costs.
Where has the cost of living support – which the University was once groundbreaking in providing – gone? The impetus has been lost. Yes, there is the ‘Cosy Campus’ scheme and kettles and blankets available across campus, but these are less accessible as they will be used by people who know it’s there. There’s also the various loans and bursaries the Students’ Union provides, but these require specific circumstances. The £170 payment is accessible to all. It’s also unstigmatised, as it’s offered to all students who tick ‘yes’.
Students are still facing the same challenges they were this time last year. The only difference is that the majority of us are one year further into our degree with a £170-shaped hole in our pocket. The payment helps to alleviate the stress, worries, and concrete issues students are facing.
The University needs to take the best interests of their students into account again. Although some may view the £170 as a welcome financial bonus, to others it would make a world of difference. Students are repeatedly told to express their views, yet isn’t it time that students’ voices are not just heard, but actioned?
You can access Students’ Union cost of living funds here:
SU Emergency Fund: Student Support | Finances | Cost of Living | The University of Manchester
Access to Recreation Grant: University of Manchester Students’ Union (manchesterstudentsunion.com)