‘It’s broken me’: UK students on financial strain in the pandemic

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The average student has paid £1,621 in rent for rooms that they have been unable to use owing to Covid restrictions, according to a survey. For many, the rent has added to their financial worries after losing term-time employment or support from their parents. Three students share their experiences of financial strain during the pandemic.

‘Landlords should be more sympathetic’

While many UK universities have offered reduced rent on student accommodation, a majority of students rent from private landlords. Millie, who studies film and television at the University of Lincoln, is prevented from living at her university address by the lockdown but is still charged £88 in rent a week. This has become increasingly difficult to pay since she lost her job in retail in the spring of 2020.

“One of my parents is self-employed and the other is furloughed, so they can’t support me,” she said. “I have an Etsy shop where I sell paintings, but that’s pocket money really.”

When she asked her university for assistance, she was advised to send a letter to her landlord explaining her financial situation. “But mine doesn’t want to know,” she said. “It’s obviously up to them, but landlords do get government support, whereas most students don’t really, apart from our maintenance loan. They should be more sympathetic.”

A further distraction from her coursework is the cost of her textbooks, which can range between £25 and £100. “The library aren’t ordering these books in currently because of the pandemic,” she said.

Because Millie, 26, is classed as a mature student, she receives a smaller loan – £8,500 a year rather than £9,500. “It’s a big difference under current circumstances. If I wasn’t graduating in June, I’d be in dire straits.”

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She also said she would not be eligible for the new government fund for students whose finances have been hardest hit by the pandemic. “I already get a bursary from my university for earning below a certain threshold, but from the sounds of it the new funding they are giving is for students who literally have nothing. It’s not enough.”

‘I’ve had to be very careful what I spend’

Beth, a student at Queen’s University Belfast, has struggled to meet her living costs because the pandemic has led to her own earnings and her mother’s income falling significantly. During term time, Beth can only work 12 hours a week without clashes with her timetable, while her mother, a teacher at an education college, has had her hours cut significantly.

Beth receives a student loan of £1,000 per term, which was calculated on her mother’s income before the pandemic. “The means test for student finance only takes your parents’ situation at the time of applying – the previous tax year – so it doesn’t take into account people being furloughed or losing work,” she said.

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Although most of her income is spent on rent, which is £300 a month, Beth has been unable to visit her university house since early December and has been living with her family outside the city. She has had to cut back on “luxuries”, she said, such as subscriptions to Netflix and Amazon Prime. “I have had to be very careful what I spend my money on and I plan each week to make sure, so I can afford bills at the start of every month.”

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The student said the pandemic and the resulting financial worries had seriously affected her studies. “Some of my grades are lower. It is a massive struggle to meet deadlines. When I’m at home, we don’t each have a desk or a room to work in, so I am surrounded by people all the time. There have definitely been stresses between us in the family, which can be hard to manage some days.

“[The stress] has completely broken me,” she added. “I never thought, at 21, I would spend so much time worrying and being saddened by these things.”

‘Every month I see my arrears go up’

Abhishek, an international student studying English literature and language at Anglia Ruskin University, has become increasingly stressed and isolated owing to the financial hardship caused by the pandemic.

The 21-year-old, who is now in his final year, supported himself before the pandemic working as a teaching assistant in Cambridge.I never struggled,” he said. “Sometimes I’d pay my bills early.”

But in September last year his hours were reduced significantly, to 12 hours a week. He is now reliant on his parents in India for financial support because he is ineligible for the government’s hardship fund, which only covers home and EU students. “I had to regularly call home and ask my family for money,” he said. “Even they were struggling at the time, so it weighed on my conscience.

“I’ve had to change my whole lifestyle, my diet, everything. I can’t spend the same money on the food I like. I’ve had to reduce my phone bills and calculate everything before I go shopping. Not being able to work had a negative impact.”

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Abhishek asked his university for financial help, but he said he only qualified for a small amount. His debts continued to grow, even when the first national lockdown lifted last summer and he was briefly able to work full-time again.

“Here in Cambridge, the rent is a lot for a small room. Whatever money I’ve earned, I’ve used to pay the rent. I tried to have a conversation with my [private] landlord about a discount, but they didn’t entertain it,” he said.

Since he could not afford the £1,000 flight home to India,Abhishek found himself stuck in Cambridge. “I’m mostly by myself, and every month I see my arrears going up.”