Students are being hammered by the cost of living crisis. It’s time to fight back.
The cost of living crisis is at the forefront of everyone’s minds – and rightly so. Food prices are spiralling out of control; energy prices are set to have tripled in the space of just one year; and the private rental sector incentivises landlords (not that they need the encouragement) to push the price of the veritable luxury of a roof over our heads to absurd, and crucially unaffordable, heights. I could go on, but I doubt that it’s necessary. Young people aren’t excluded from this crisis, and nor are students: we must fight it together, acting in solidarity, and demanding radical reform away from the economics of neoliberalism so catastrophically failing society in its entirety.
As an undergraduate student entering my final year of study, my reflections on university life are bleak, to say the least. I began my studies in October 2020, paying £5,000 for a room which, in fairness, I spent a significant proportion of my time in, primarily due to the fact that I was legally mandated to do so. In person teaching was a thing of legend. Lectures via Zoom, and the inability to meet or socialise with my course-mates at less than a 2 metre distance, and sudden U-turns on lockdown conditions characterised my first year of university. My second year was more positive, though lacked any sign of understanding from the university of the first year experience of my cohort. The workload remained the same, whilst we all tried to replicate the non-academic aspects of university life we had heard so much about, and yet been unable to access ourselves. Unsurprisingly, the pre-existing mental health crisis in higher education worsened.
Now, I’m looking ahead to my third and final year of study with dread. Amidst sustained inflation, the worst of which is yet to come, student maintenance loans have increased by 2.3%, representing the lowest support for student living costs since 2015. The fight for a return to maintenance grants is one which I support wholeheartedly: it’s a real kick in the teeth when you realise the loan which won’t even cover your annual rent (before bills) is one which you’ll have to pay back — with additional interest, no less. In July, 11% of students turned to food banks; come Christmas, that figure will rocket. As we enter the new academic year, a third of student accommodation costs more than the average maintenance loan. Students at the University of Oxford, like myself, will on average spend 86% of our maintenance loan on rent — that doesn’t include bills — whilst contending with a university whose regulations prohibit paid employment in term-time.
The outlook is nothing short of terrifying, but opposition and resistance is far from absent. The student movement is alive and kicking. It gives me hope. Rent strikes in 2020, as students were forced to fork out on accommodation to which they were legally banned from traveling; student solidarity with striking University and college Union workers, culminating in a student strike, coordinated by the National Union of Students, in March 2022; and hundreds of individual actions on campuses across the country, organised and carried out by student organisers. But we have a lot to do, and we have to get organised. Under the Tories’ watch, and the Liberal Democrats’ betrayal, tuition fees hit £9,250 a year from 2017/18, and have been static ever since. Students fought back then, and we must do the same — and better — now.
The Young Greens have been at the forefront of the student movement in recent years, calling for justice for students. From backing rent strikers, and advising local Green councillors on how they could do the same, to offering support to progressive candidates in student union elections across the country, we know that the Green Party holds the keys to a radical new vision for education. Education which is free, education celebrated for its inherent value, education which centres liberation in its curricula.
Right now, as a student scared about how I’m going to afford to eat, to pay the bills, to afford to travel to my lectures, there are some immediate political decisions students must demand. First, an increase to maintenance loans above inflation, and an immediate reversion to maintenance grants, writing off student debt. Second, rent caps: all accommodation, regardless of landlord, should be subject to an upper-limit, to ensure that students are never even close to facing the situation confronting thousands of us today, with our income falling short of covering our most basic needs. And finally, a universal basic income, to support all students in being able to live — not just survive, not just scrape by with the bare essentials, or some of them.
These demands are far from unique to students. Above-inflation pay rises, writing off student debt, introducing rent caps, establishing a universal basic income — these are all familiar policies to Greens and progressives around the world, and with good reason. They are building blocks to delivering a Greener, fairer society, reducing inequality, increasing access to education, and improving wellbeing away from a capitalist economy in which workers aren’t people, so much as they are profit-makers. There is a broader fight back against the cost of living (or, perhaps more accurately, the cost of capitalism) crisis, manifesting in campaigns like Enough is Enough: the unique fight facing students, including decolonising curricula, and opposing the government’s dogmatic attempts to eradicate arts and humanities degrees, must not be overlooked. But working with campaigns who share our determination to achieve radical societal overhaul is essential, both to ensure students aren’t systematically excluded from any wins made, and to build momentum and solidarity behind our demands.
This year is going to be tough. I enter the final year of my undergraduate a degree, a time which should be one of hope, possibility, and opportunity, with an inescapable sense of terror, wondering how I’m going to afford to live, let alone study, or pass exams which, so far, it has cost me almost £50,000 to sit (before interest, of course). But the strengthening of the student movement over the past few years gives me hope, and whilst it should never, ever have reached this point, I am confident that the skills, the passion, and the drive within our movement is more than adequate to see a coordinated and effective resistance to the attempted destruction of UK higher education reach critical mass, and then go on and win.
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Image credit: Alisdare Hickson – Creative Commons