Written by Guest Writer

This blog post has been written for us by an industry expert.

This guest blog has been written by Ambar Ennis. Ambar is the current Vice President for Community and Wellbeing at John Moores Students’ Union. Ambar graduated last year from Liverpool John Moores University with a History BA Hons and was formerly the Women’s Part-time Liberation Officer for two years alongside her degree. Ambar has dedicated a lot of work to securing funding for free period products at LJMU and is passionate about supporting all students to fulfil their potential whilst in Higher Education.

Universities provided increased hardship funding during the pandemic but it didn’t reach everyone. And aside from cash deposits, it’s important to ask the question: were students being supported with navigating their mental wellbeing alongside the new normal? 

Financial education is something that not all students are equipped with when starting university. The proportion of maintenance loans that has to go towards necessities is mind-bending stuff and can cause anxiety and sometimes even feelings of shame. 

On top of this, the perception of ‘traditional students’ has limited the scope of support strategies in the designing of Student Advice and Wellbeing departments. 

To provide effective safety nets for students experiencing mental health issues or financial difficulties, the ‘traditional student’ model has to be abandoned and financial education has to be embedded into the student experience. 

Who is really a traditional student?

Blackbullion’s Student Money & Wellbeing 2022 report packs a punch with suggestions of what HE institutions need to be doing, what they should have already been doing, and how they can rectify these papered-over-cracks to best serve their key stakeholders. 

Financial education is vital for all stages of our lives, especially with new graduates often told to choose a career for the next 60 years. But as the university experience is the supposed formative epoch, students have to be equipped with the knowledge needed to thrive in the working world and as they look towards homeownership and supporting a family. 

The traditional student – starts a degree at 18, doesn’t have dependents, is a UK national, completed A-levels – is an incompetent viewpoint for the majority of students. A lot of students are still the first to attend university in their family, have grown up in a household where financial difficulties have been a huge part of life, have parents and siblings that are emotionally, physically, and financially dependent on them, and are living with ‘grown-up’ responsibilities at a young age. 

COVID will have heightened pressure on some students to drop out and get a job to support their families financially and some will have been emotionally supporting their families whilst juggling assignments in national lockdown. Many students became carers during the pandemic for ill relatives and for younger siblings. The report shows that students with parenting responsibilities were juggling attaining their degree and home-schooling their children. 

Nursing, medicine, and healthcare students were on the frontline supporting the key workers to tackle COVID. These students were experiencing trauma in the first years of their professional careers and the impacts on their physical and mental health will not even be fully realised for years to come.

All students experienced unprecedented, life-altering adversity during COVID and immediate action is needed to support their mental health journeys. The intertwined nature of money and mental health explored in the report shows that students of the COVID era are feeling overwhelmed by their financial standings and are more likely to enter into dangerous financial activity. 

We have to put measures in place to support these students and promote degree completion. We also have to make counselling and mental health support readily available to stop students from struggling in silence.

The gender question 

The report’s attention to the gender disparities in financial wellbeing is something that should not be overlooked.* 

9 in 10 nurses are women and women are more likely to care for relatives. A strong connotation of care work is for it to be seen as ‘feminine’, unvalued work. Viewing care work in this way makes it easier to see the unpaid or poorly paid reality as acceptable, which furthers the gender pay gap. The World Economic Forum found that more women than men lost paid work because of COVID, and the increased burden of unpaid care was disproportionately borne by women.

When it comes to creating valuable support for all students, the HE sector needs to directly confront the disparities in familial responsibilities that women students bear, and review the level of support in place to ensure these students don’t drop out or burn out due to the combined pressures. 

The gender question also means looking at disparities in the cost of living for women and men. Research in the last ten years has shown that people who menstruate spend between £4,800-£18,000 on their periods over a lifetime. The attention given to the Tampon Tax in mainstream media in recent years has encouraged more people to engage with the stigmatised issue of periods and how they can negatively affect people’s mental and financial wellbeing. 

At JMSU, we found in 2019 that 80% of our students that menstruate were missing lectures and seminars to go home early if they came on their period whilst on campus due to not having period products. 20% of students that menstruate were missing university altogether (as a result of being unable to afford period products) and were instead using homemade products or were free-bleeding. This research led the SU to lobby the university to permanently invest in free period products on campus from September 2019. 

Period poverty is a lack of access to period products due to financial constraints. It is also perpetuated by stigma and shame surrounding periods. 

Many students were choosing to go without period products so as to afford food – a similar case to students choosing between food and prescriptions, as spoken about by Dr. Dominique Thompson in this blog. 

These patterns, which are so aptly detailed in the report, are unacceptable in a HE sector that is abundant with claims of institutions prioritising the student experience and mental health. The dehumanising choices between prescriptions, period products, food and bills are commonplace in the lives of students in 2022 and the detrimental impact on their mental health will create permanent financial fears in their adult lives post-graduation. 

What should universities be doing?

In order to best support students and have genuine awareness of their financial and wellbeing realities, universities need to start by fully engaging with the findings in the report and establishing mental health charters, like that of the Student Minds Mental Health Charter. Mental health charters are needed to hone in on the areas where students are falling through the cracks in the hardship support and wellbeing support systems. Mental health charters need to incorporate financial support and education innovations as core components of future student experience strategies.  

Students are worried about where they fit into a post-COVID, pre-recession economy and instead of fun, superficial socials, they want the university to invest in supporting their career aspirations, their side hustles, and in preparing them for a working world where personal branding via LinkedIn has become a currency for employability. 

Universities should be:

  • Destigmatising the conversation around money. This can be anything from seminars on salary negotiation and salary transparency (especially important when addressing the gender pay gap), to accessible drop-ins with the money advice team. 
  • Innovating their commitments to student mental health with a charter that clearly depicts their goals and strategy. 
  • Developing campus-based internships and placements to safely and effectively build students’ experience and employability. 
  • Tackling gender inequalities and empowering women students to have faith in their financial literacy. 
  • Providing free period products on campus to tackle period poverty’s impact on education. 
  • Demonstrating a commitment to student wellbeing in a tangible way, such as by investing in resources that better prepare students for life during and after university – like Blackbullion.

Without financial education built into what students can get out of their university experience, I believe that institutions cannot effectively prepare students for the working world.

You can download the Student Money & Wellbeing 2022 report here.

*A note from Blackbullion: when referring to males and females throughout the report, this is in reference to people who chose to identify as either male or female at the beginning of the survey.

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