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Cost of living: Life as Essex university students avoiding meals so kids can eat and 'half starving to afford life'

Essex Live logo Essex Live 24/10/2022 Charlie Ridler

Studying for her Master's degree at Anglia Ruskin University, sometimes mum of four May Kiely doesn’t eat. She says she goes without food so she can afford to feed her children. May has experienced financial trouble before, but in recent months she’s noticed a change - certain aspects of student life have become just too expensive.

Britain is being gripped by a cost of living crisis, with a 10 per cent inflation rate meaning essential goods are unaffordable for many across the country. According to a survey by the NUS, a third of UK students have less than £50 a week to live on after rent and bills. 90 per cent say the crisis is affecting their mental health. 11 per cent are using food banks.

The University of Essex and Anglia Ruskin University said they are committed to supporting students and measures are available to those in financial need, including direct funding. But for students from different backgrounds in Essex, travelling to campus and paying for course materials have become obstacles to everyday life. Some are no longer sure university is worth the cost.

Read more: Essex County Council unveils £50m cost of living support package including 'warm banks'

‘I’ll go without so they can have’

“I’ll go without so they can have,” said May. “It’s the same when I go to uni and people go, why don’t you make yourself a packed lunch if you can’t afford to have lunch? If I use what’s there that means less for my kids.” Originally from Bangor, May moved to Essex 19 years ago, studying for an Early Years Education degree and then working in schools and nursing.

She told the LDRS: “When I was about eight or nine years old my worry was if my mum and dad were going to be able to afford to pay that bill, or how am I going to afford to have something to eat. It doesn’t leave you when you’re growing up and I never want to put my kids into that situation.”

The family was made homeless six years ago after their landlord sold the Shrub End home they were renting. Now living in Highwoods with a housing association, May had to quit her job in a pre-school when she started her Master's in social work. She now works as a care support worker on top of university, a job she enjoys and describes as “lovely”.

Her partner works too, but sometimes petrol prices prevent him from driving her to ARU’s Chelmsford campus. Expensive lessons and a backlog of tests mean May won’t be able to learn herself any time soon. At home, two of her children have special educational needs, making studying remotely challenging at times. Her out-of-date laptop is on the verge of breaking and May cannot afford a new one.

Anglia Ruskin University, Chelmsford © LDRS Anglia Ruskin University, Chelmsford

May says the university has been understanding, for example being lenient if she cannot complete assignments on time. But she feels it could do more, such as providing vouchers or discounts to help with costs. She said: "Especially when you’re doing a degree, you realise actually I'm quite alone here. You’re not getting any support.”

A spokesperson for Anglia Ruskin University said in a statement it had introduced free fruit, porridge and soup on campus, a hot meal for £1 a day and free sanitary products in its bathrooms. Students can also receive on-campus financial advice. It said: “We are committed to supporting any student that is in financial difficulty and we have a number of funds and bursaries that provide assistance depending on their situation. Some are automatic, such as our ARU Bursary for undergraduates from low-income households, while others are application based. These include our Hardship Fund, which is available to all students.”

‘Half starving just to afford my life’

Katherine Bunster, second year Journalism and Criminology student at the University of Essex, spoke to the LDRS from her home in Norway, having flown back to work so she can afford student life. “I was looking and praying that the groceries wouldn’t add up to more than £20 because I know that I wouldn’t be able to afford it,” she said.

Most of the money she receives from the Norwegian government is used up on tuition fees, which at £17,700 are nearly double what her British course mates are charged, and rent. She said: “My parents were up here in Norway and they really didn’t like the fact that I was half starving just to be able to afford my life in the UK.”

Finding a part time job is more difficult for international students, because the number of hours they are allowed to work is capped. Consequently, Katherine says she struggled financially during the coronavirus pandemic and now. She said: “I went a lot to the reduced parts of supermarkets and I’m completely sure I must have gotten sick so many times from the veggies or the things being out of date and I’d still try to consume them because it was cheaper than buying new.”

Katherine Bunster, second year student at the University of Essex © Katherine Bunster Katherine Bunster, second year student at the University of Essex

Katherine spent most of her first year in lockdown. Now, living in the university’s Colchester campus, rising bus and train fares have put up new barriers to leaving. The two crises made Katherine reconsider whether university in the UK had been the right choice for her.

She said: “I can’t live like a normal young adult. If I didn’t have the job I have I would be struggling to be honest because I wouldn’t be able to do all the normal things a person my age might do.” However, Katherine has managed to find a part time job in a bakery in Colchester, which she will start when she returns this autumn. She hopes this will help her situation.

She said: “I know I won’t be able to make a lot there, but for me it’s more than enough. It really feels good.” A University of Essex spokesperson said in a statement: “The cost of living crisis in the UK is impacting all of us and we are working really hard to support our students to still get the most from their university experience.”

According to a joint statement by SU President Nashwa Alsakka and Pro-Vice Chancellor Professor Madeline Eacott, the university has now announced extra support, including increasing the university’s hardship fund from £489,000 to £1.5million. It is also reducing the cost of essentials for sale in the Students’ Union, providing free food in weekly “warm spaces” and scrapping resit fees.

‘Is it worth the risk of coming to uni?’

George Curley, a Multimedia Journalism student at the University of Essex, said: “I think there’s quite a big difference between living and existing.” Some students are cutting out fun from their lives. While lower priority than food or heating, doing things beyond just going to lectures and food shopping are still important for students’ wellbeing.

George Curley, second year student at the University of Essex © BBC Essex George Curley, second year student at the University of Essex

For some, the risk of getting into tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt which they may struggle to pay back, while only being able to afford minimal food shops and having little social life, is no longer worth it. George, in his second year, said: “I’ll stick out my course here for three years, but I don’t know if I’d recommend it to anyone to be honest. You have to think, is it worth the risk of coming to uni?”

When term started earlier this month, NHS England published a statement revealing a rise of almost a fifth in people being referred to mental health crisis services compared to pre-pandemic levels. “Mentally, students can’t get to sleep at night because they don’t know when the next bill’s going to come in,” said George.

Those becoming adults over the last decade have experienced successive periods of turmoil. The decade started with tuition fees being tripled, and ended with the worst pandemic in a hundred years. Now the dawn of a new decade breaks with yet another crisis, which shows no sign of slowing.

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