Written by Rosie Neill

Head of marketing

Discover eight actionable ways universities and colleges can support students with the most pressing challenge they’re facing right now: the cost of living crisis. 

These suggestions have been put together with the input of:

  • Hannah Sketchley from the National Union of Students (NUS) 
  • Jim Dickinson, Associate Editor at Wonkhe and former Director at the NUS 
  • Tried-and-tested ideas from our community of staff at 50+ universities and colleges

1. De-stigmatise help

There’s undoubtedly still a stigma around financial help. There’s evidence of this from students in the form of reluctance to ask for help, as well as hesitance to engage with some of the support on offer – like food banks.

Providing vouchers instead of food

In the case of food banks, staff have found that students are much more willing to accept help in the form of a voucher, rather than food itself. Students have fed back that they feel more in control when they’re able to choose the food for themselves. 

For example, Aldi’s orange voucher scheme, which can’t be used on alcohol or lottery tickets. 

One thing to bear in mind though, especially if your institution has multiple campuses, is that vouchers can accrue additional travel costs if students need to travel to a specific supermarket. Leeds Trinity University is countering this by offering a free shuttle bus around the local area and to a local shopping park. 

University of Staffordshire Students’ Union has done a lot of work on developing a food hub service that their students feel comfortable using – more details here.

A unique opportunity to normalise financial support

We’re living in a moment in time where we are all being financially impacted by macro conditions way beyond our control. It could be said that the cost of living crisis presents a particular opportunity to address persistent stigma and perceived negativity around financial support. 

For students who will be living through their first recession, the message is simple: right now, more than ever, they’re not alone if they’re struggling with money. 

There is support available for them and for many, it won’t be just an option but a necessity to take any help on offer. Realising this should help to alleviate any negative feelings that students associate with financial support.

2. Create a sense of community

Universities and colleges are uniquely positioned to create a sense of community among their students, which can be a powerful way of helping students see that they’re not alone. 

Encouraging conversation

Getting students together with their peers to discuss money is one way to create a sense of community, reduce feelings of isolation and demystify confusion about what is ‘normal’

Nottingham Trent University has successfully implemented this through optional workshops. And if you’re not sure where to begin, these 8 financial icebreakers could be useful.

Getting students together also provides staff with an opportunity to increase awareness of the financial help that’s available, along with where students can go to get it, and share information and resources focused on the current cost of living.

3. Improve accuracy and quality of information

University and college staff have been reporting an emerging trend over the past year: students are arriving on campus less financially prepared for the reality of student life than ever before. 

Students continuously tend to underestimate how much they’ll need and rapidly rising inflation has only accelerated this. So on the topic of sharing information, while it can be a challenge in an evolving economic climate, it has never been more important to make sure that all information for students is accurate and up to date. 

For more, read 5 ways to help students be financially prepared for university. 

Tailored information for international students

Also needed is updated and more tailored information for international students who, in many cases, are not being accurately warned about the reality of inflation and what they’ll need to fund their studies. 

For instance, official recommendations of how much money an international student in the UK will need have only been increased by 1% this year, whereas the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose by 9.9% in the 12 months to August 2022. 

There’s a crucial need for universities and colleges to provide both their prospective home and international students with accurate information about the cost of living in their area. 

4. Work with your Student Union

Students’ Unions can sometimes do things that university teams aren’t always able to (such as campaigning and lobbying the government). Equally, in many cases, university teams have access to resources that SU’s don’t – like hardship funding, for example.

Both can enhance the work of the other, so it’s important to join hands for the benefit of students. Especially on the cost of living crisis – an issue that both parties are seeing is having a profound impact on students and their wellbeing.

Working on building the relationship between the university and Students’ Union is essential to be able to take a genuine, whole-institution approach, and institutions who have done just this have seen powerful results.

We’re really lucky to have a good working relationship with the University and to be able to work collaboratively on this important issue. A whole-University (including the Students’ Union) approach is definitely what’s needed.

Danny Walker Advice Manager
Staffordshire University Students’ Union

5. Improve accessibility of hardship funding

Students’ reluctance to apply for hardship funding is another challenge to tackle to help support them with the cost of living crisis.

The most common issues are that students either don’t think hardship funding is for them, or they worry that their application won’t be approved so don’t bother applying at all. 

This highlights an opportunity for increased communication from universities and colleges that clearly explains the application process and eligibility criteria for hardship and other additional funding. 

The University of Reading is currently working with their SU on myth-busting around misconceptions about applying for hardship funding, to address some of the perceived barriers they’ve heard about from students.

Additionally, you could consider using our Funds Management System (FMS), which was created to help solve this challenge for institutions and improve the accessibility of funding. Get in touch to find out more. 

6. Do the ‘small things’

What might seem like a small thing can actually have a big impact! 

One idea from Hannah Sketchley (NUS) is for universities and colleges to focus on doing whatever it is that only they can do – no matter how small it may seem.

Look to improve the areas you have control over. For example, if you run the catering on campus, introducing a simple scheme like ‘40p beans on toast’ (something the University of York are doing) can have a big impact for students. 

7. Control rent

54% of the staff we asked* said that rent payments are the number-one worry that students are reporting right now. Followed by energy bills, then food costs. This is a finding echoed by the NUS’s recent cost of living research.

The NUS are asking that, where they’re able to, universities and colleges cap rent for student accommodation owned by the institution. 

When this has been done in instances where the university is the majority landlord in a student town, there’s evidence that it’s also had an impact on the rental market as a whole. The result has been more affordable rental costs for students. 

Check out this presentation for more information about the NUS’s cost of living research.

8. Support the NUS in their lobbying of the government 

The NUS also has a number of asks of Westminster. For these, they’re appealing particularly to decision makers and influential figures in universities and colleges. The plea is to join together with the NUS in lobbying the government.

Asks of the government

It’s moments of crises – like this one – that bring about seed change and the NUS sees current events as an opportunity to rebuild the consensus of what’s ‘normal’, adjust expectations of students and make improvements.

The NUS is asking Westminster for:


  • A student support package – a flat payment for all students across the UK
  • An increased maintenance loan in line with inflation – loans have gone up 2.3% while inflation is spiralling much higher than this
  • A readjustment of the thresholds of eligibility based on household income for maintenance loans – to reflect the current cost of living

[The following to be considered for the next general election]

  • A commitment to bring back maintenance grants or to introduce aspects of other systems that work quite well (for example, Welsh student funding)
  • Longer-term commitments to the apprentice living wage
  • Rent controls at a policy level
  • Action on transport costs (universities and colleges can sometimes also impact this in their local area e.g. some have started running their own bus routes from student areas)

Further thoughts: a review of the distributed nature of student funding

Jim Dickinson adds some thoughts on the distributed nature of student funding and the challenges this presents – something else that requires government review and input.

As we know, student finance currently works by assuming that students will receive some additional funding outside of their state-funded allowance. It’s expected to come from sources including loans, part-time work, support from family or support from universities. 

The pre-existing challenges with this (students struggling to juggle part-time work with their studies, for example) are all being made worse by the cost of living crisis. In particular, less and less students are able to receive support from their families. 

What’s clear is that on a mass scale, students don’t have enough money. Earlier in the year, students said they need £395 extra a month, compared to what they actually have, to feel confident they will be able to complete their degree. It’s likely this amount has risen significantly in the past few months.

A problem with student funding being diluted across different sources is that each can look to the other to solve the problem and no one knows where to start. Jim proposes that, in each part of the UK, a review of this and a fresh settlement that properly clarifies the retrospective responsibilities of each party is needed.

Read more of Jim’s thoughts here.

What is Blackbullion doing to help?

Financial education

Our financial education hasn’t gone anywhere and continues to support students every day. For example, we’ve had feedback from students that our inflation learning pathway has helped them understand what’s going on right now.

The need for continued financial education is clear, as demonstrated by the insights from this year’s student Money Confessions

The biggest database of additional funding sources for students 

However, we also know that the reality for many students, especially at the moment, is that they simply don’t have enough money. Regardless of how good they are at budgeting. 

So we’re working hard to make it easy for students to discover and apply for any and all additional funding they may be eligible for – by becoming the biggest database of additional funding for students.

That’s why we bought The Scholarship Hub earlier this year. We’re also actively asking corporate businesses to produce more scholarships, grants and bursaries for students and adding these to the Funds Hub in our financial wellbeing platform. 

Get in touch to find out more.

Recession survival guide for students

We’ve put together a recession survival guide, which suggests some actions students can take right now. Please share it with your students.

As always, let us know if there are any ways you feel we can better support you and your students with the cost of living crisis. 

If you’d like more ideas, have a read of Jim’s blog: 101 ways to get the cost of living down for students. Meanwhile, this Wonkhe blog shares 10 things the government could do for higher education right now.

Watch the recording

Watch the recording from our CPD-accredited staff training webinar on the cost of living crisis, with expert speakers Hannah Sketchley (NUS) and Jim Dickinson (Wonkhe):

Don’t forget to sign up to our staff email newsletter to get all the latest blogs, news and updates to help you support students and their financial wellbeing.

*From a poll of 69 staff members at universities and colleges across the UK.

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