The cost of travelling to uni is forcing me to choose between lectures and my weekly shop
‘Do I have enough money to even survive until January?’
Jennifer skipped some of her lectures last week. She didn’t skip them because she was hungover or tired or couldn’t be bothered to go in. She skipped them because she wanted to make sure she could afford to eat something that day.
Jennifer is one of 127 UWE students who has been sent to live across the border in Newport because UWE doesn’t have enough accommodation to house all its students in Bristol.
UWE has suggested some students don’t mind living in Wales because it’s “significantly cheaper” than Bristol and is situated in a “vibrant student area”.
On paper, the university is correct. Jennifer pay £131 each week. Of UWE’s six different residences on its main Frenchay Campus, five of them are more expensive with prices ranging between £140-£199-a-week. Only a twin room share which costs £104-a-week is cheaper.
However, this ignores one blindingly obvious difference. If you live on the Frenchay campus, you are minutes away from your lecture theatre. “I start with a 20 minute walk to the train station,” Jennifer explained. Then she takes a London-bound train into Bristol and then another 20 minute walk from the station to her lecture theatre. “It’s just long,” she said.
The university has offered to pay the cost of the taxi to and from Newport station and a three-year Railcard which gives the students a third off travel. It is not paying for the train journeys Newport students are expected to make each day to uni, nor is it offering a shuttle service or an alternative means of travel.
Even with a Railcard, if Jennifer wants to get to uni for a 9am lecture tomorrow and leave any time in the afternoon, it will cost £12 for a return ticket. The price falls to £8.55 if she is lucky enough to have a later lecture and is able to travel off-peak.
“It’s roughly £10 for a train ticket every day. So that’s £50 a week. If you think about that in terms of the whole month, that’s £200 gone,” she said.
Suddenly Jennifer’s £131-a-week rent is effectively £181-a-week. This, she says is unsustainable. “I have lectures today but I was like you know what, I’m going to save my money today because I want to get something to eat today.”
With the cost of her commute added to their rent, only two of UWE’s 12 halls of residence are more expensive. Both of those are studio flats and come with kitchenettes.
This is not the first time UWE has sent students to live in Wales. However, unlike in previous years, Jennifer’s lectures are no longer pre-recorded. If she wants to keep up with her degree, she needs to physically be in her lectures.
She’s not sure how to approach this with her lecturers. “Hopefully I can talk to my teachers and say ‘Hey, I don’t have that much money, I’m stuck in Newport'” and they’ll be understanding about her missing lectures.
Jennifer admitted she doesn’t know how to make her student loan stretch until January. “I’m going to be broke. I just bought a laptop as well because I needed it for my degree.
“I’m trying to find a job but there’s not a lot of places hiring in Newport because it’s such a small place. Hopefully I find something,” she added.
Despite the real financial hardship she is facing, Jennifer is upbeat about making the most of being in Newport. She’s settled down and made friends with girls on the floor below her and there’s a sense of camaraderie between the 127 UWE students. “We just laugh about how ridiculous Newport is. We are going to be here for a year, let’ try and find somewhere next year for Bristol.”
Newport itself is “dead”. Beyond a Spoons which stays open until 1am and “is a bit busy and filled with a lot of old white men” and a karaoke bar opposite equally filled with “older people”, there’s not a lot for the students to do.
Perhaps Jennifer isn’t really missing out on a full university experience – UWE Vice-Chancellor, Professor Steve West told the BBC they are “providing pizza and other fun nights” to the Newport students “to bring a sense of community there”.
However, Jennifer said the cost of her travel is so high, it stops her going out. When she meets people on her course and is invited out, she feels she has to decline. “When it comes to going out, [because I’m in Newport] I’ll have to pay more than you do so I don’t think I can.”
“It’s not just me, there are a lot of people who don’t have a lot of money in Newport who need to move closer to campus.”
Jennifer said the uni did reach out to the Newport students in an email saying they can apply for money from the Student Money Service and that there are hardship funds available to them but she is worried she will have to pay the money back.
“There’s no accommodation team on the ground at Newport, there’s no one to speak to [about money] at Newport. All there is, is the reception and they aren’t part of the university.”
A spokesperson for UWE said: “An accommodation manager from UWE Bristol is based at the Newport accommodation for two days a week. Outside of these days, students can contact the university by phone or email firstname.lastname@example.org with any issues and expect an urgent response. We are also planning to introduce a weekly meeting with students for them to provide feedback, and for the university to offer any support required.”
They went on to say: “We are committed to ensuring students in financial difficulty receive support. Any students who are struggling financially should contact our Student Money Service so we can support them.
“UK students may be eligible for help from our Student Support Fund. The University has made some recent changes to the eligibility criteria for this fund which mean that additional help to pay utility bills will be targeted towards students who most need it. We have also adjusted our criteria to account for inflation when considering students’ expenditure.
“Payments made by the university to students via the Student Support Fund are not repayable. If a student requires help in making an application to this fund, they should contact our Student Money Service for guidance.”