With the well-documented rise in energy bills likely to affect millions of Britons this year, a new national survey suggests students face acute concerns about the cost of energy and accommodation.
The findings of the National Student Accommodation Survey 2022 come as Save the Student, a money advice website, warned that the government’s support for bill-payers “severely overlooks students’ financial struggles”.
The survey of 1,200 students – conducted every year by Save the Student – found that, of those that pay rent, 53% struggled to keep up with the cost this year, including 11% that found it a constant struggle. Average rent rose slightly this year in 2021/22, from £146 to £148 per week. Rents were highest in London (£185 pw), Scotland (£180 pw) and the southwest (£164 pw).
Four in ten students surveyed pay energy bills separately from their rent – a monthly outgoing averaging £62 per student and £220 per household. Around three in five have seen their energy bills increase this year.
Of those paying energy bills, four in five are worried about price hikes, and three-quarters cut back on heating as a result. Eighteen per cent of those surveyed said their energy provider had gone bust in the last year.
The findings came as the student money-saving website warned the government’s energy bill relief fell short. The £150 council tax rebate does nothing to help students already exempt from the tax, Save the Students warned, estimating that students collectively are £40m short of support.
The group also warns that the £200 October bills credit “could cost many students more money than it saves them” – with an estimation that the current undergraduate cohort will repay £60m more than they saved.
The findings come as the Office for National Statistics confirmed that inflation hit a 30-year high at 5.5% last month, with the hike in gas and electricity prices the largest, single contributory factor.
The cost of accommodation is already a huge drain on students’ finances and as we can see from our latest insights, the situation is unfortunately set to get a lot worse
– Jake Butler, Save the Student
For students whose rent includes bills – including 92% of students in university halls – the bills credit will not benefit them, but the terms of the rules mean many will need to repay it.
For those that pay bills separately, many will likely live with fewer housemates after graduation and could, therefore, repay more than they saved.
Discretionary £144m funds for vulnerable people “is by no means guaranteed to students”, Save the Student said – further “highlighting that [students] have been left as an afterthought”.
A spokesperson for Save the Student said the organisation was calling on ministers to act.
A report accompanying the survey includes quotes from students, including one estranged from their family who said: “It is really difficult to afford all the living costs and socialising at the same time. It heavily impacts my mental health and definitely creates a feeling of alienation in comparison to my lucky peers whose rent is paid by their family.”
A different student said their monthly energy bills increased from approximately “£90 – £95 to over £130, despite being consistently below our monthly estimates for the past two years”.
A student in university halls said: “I worry about borrowing money from my parents. It makes me feel bad about myself.” Another student, this time in private rented accommodation, said: “I worry about putting financial strain on the family, and none of my flatmates are [sic] responsible enough to budget so it falls to me.”
30% without water or heating
The pressure on student wallets has forced many more than last year to borrow money, up from 47% to 56%. Of those, 30% had asked parents for a loan, 21% had used an overdraft, and 6% had used a credit card. The survey suggests that students received on average £2,288 per year from parents or guardians towards rent.
The survey found that 30% had been without heating or water in the last year, 26% had experienced damp, and 15% contended with pests or rodents. Thirteen per cent reported “inappropriate or unannounced” visits from landlords and 17% disruptive building work. Nearly three in 10 (28%) said housing problems were unresolved within a week – including 6% who said the issues are still unresolved.
One in three students polled says their accommodation represented poor value for money.
Of those surveyed, 40% lived in properties with a private landlord, 27% in university accommodation, 13% in private halls and 13% with parents.
Students face bills ‘double hit’
Matt Western, Labour’s shadow universities minister, said, “the government’s buy now pay later energy scheme risks leaving students facing a double hit”.
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS vice-president for higher education, said the union’s research suggests student accommodation costs increased 61% in the last decade. Average rents now account for “almost three-quarters of the maximum loan available to students and are considerably more expensive than the average loan,” Gyebi-Ababio continued.
“Save the Student has shown clearly that the student rental system is broken. We are past the point where students are even close to affording this, which is why we’re pursuing widespread change both through rental reform and supporting grassroots student-led organising. Like the broader education system, nothing about this failing marketised model is inevitable.”
Jake Butler, from Save the Student, said: “The cost of accommodation is already a huge drain on students’ finances and as we can see from our latest insights, the situation is unfortunately set to get a lot worse.”
These present pressures come “on top of the ongoing issue that the Maintenance Loan, which is intended to help students cover living costs like this, was not enough, even before the spiralling increases in the cost of living”, he said.
Butler announced he was “calling on [the chancellor] Rishi Sunak and the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, to outline what they plan to offer to, what seems to be, a forgotten sector of our society”.
In 2019, Save the Student warned one in 25 students are now involved in ‘adult’ work to make ends meet. In the same year, a report warned that the rising cost of rents has weakened the present student accommodation model.
A March 2021 survey of over 5,800 students by the NUS found that 23% had been unable to pay their rent since the beginning of December.