Care experienced students and the cost of living

July 17, 2023, by Michelle Anson and Emily Dixon

Much is being written about the cost of living, and for good reason. Students living on maintenance grants and loans are being asked to live on the same amount that previous cohorts have had to, but with everything around them getting more expensive all the time, the money just doesn’t go as far as it used to. Care experienced learners are faced with several potential avenues of support, both financial and emotional, likely to be closed off to them. When we think about the cost of living in relation to care experienced learners, we need to think about the mental health impacts of the crisis as well as the financial ones. Care experienced students are likely to live with significant levels of stress as a side effect of their financial situation.  

This is a particularly pressing issue in London, where over half of residents described themselves as ‘financially struggling’ or ‘just about managing’ this year, and students commute across the most expensive city in the UK to study. For London students in all demographic groups, there is little slack in their budgets.  

But some students will be able to plug the gap between what their student funding covers and the true cost of living with support from their families. This may be direct financial support, or arranging their lives in ways that reduce what they need to fund in the first place – that could include living at home, having big ticket items like laptops bought for them, or having a hot meal waiting for them whenever they visit. Students with no family network to fall back on lack even the smallest of these forms of support, including emotional support and budgeting advice families offer.  

Care experienced students do have access to university hardship support, scholarships and bursaries, but with demand on hardship funding rising and the value of bursaries and scholarships going down in real terms, is it enough?  

Turning to the new HEPI/AdvanceHE Student Academic Experience Survey data, we see evidence of how this stress is hitting the care experienced student population. 56% of care experienced students indicated they had considered leaving, more than double the 26% of the total student body who had. Of the students who had considered withdrawing from their course, 9% of care experienced students cited the difficulty of balancing study and other commitments as a reason for wanting to leave, compared to 5% of other students. The same data tells us how precarious care experienced students’ finances can be, with more than double the proportion of care experienced students reporting relying on bank loans or overdrafts to fund their studies.  

The mental health effects of living with this level of stress may be longer lasting than the financial situation. Care experienced young people told the National Leaving Care Benchmarking Forum in December 2022 that stress resulting from the high cost of living was feeling overwhelming, worsening existing mental health conditions and creating new ones. The perfect storm of facing more financial uncertainty and having fewer places to turn to talk about it can create worrying situations for students who would rather be focusing on their degree work.  

Higher education institutions (HEIs) are already working hard to link up with local authorities, the NHS and other relevant agencies to support their care experienced students. In AccessHE’s Care Experienced & Estranged Students Forum, staff from HEIs are keen to find pan-London ways of tackling these multilayered problems. In our recent response to the Stable Homes, Built on Love consultation on children’s social care, we looked at the ways in which applying corporate parenting principles to higher education institutions might be able to help with some of these issues by making it easier for HEIs to join up with other institutions to offer smoother transitions and ease of access to support for care experienced individuals. Further research is required to understand the level of funding that would be required to make these responsibilities manageable for HEIs and how it could be applied in practice. For such a large change impacting so many other areas of higher education, it is essential that the possibility of HEIs becoming corporate parents be thoroughly researched and consulted on. Whether it is corporate parenting or another solution that makes the most sense, it is essential that the sector takes a multifaceted and multiagency approach to unpicking the financial and wellbeing impacts of the cost of living for our care experienced students.