Cambridge’s approach to the cost of living crisis

How is the crisis affecting students, and what is the university doing to help?


The university’s recent response to the cost of living crisis has demonstrated the vast effects on students. A uni-wide email sent on 25th October talked of “increased funding to the University’s Student Hardship Fund by 50 per cent” and a pilot scheme “lasting until February next year to provide subsidised lunches at the West Hub.” 

So how exactly are students being affected, and is the university doing enough?

Food is a central part of every student’s spending, and recent reports indicate that the annual rate of food price inflation stood at 11.6 per cent (13.3 per cent for fresh food) in October, a record figure. Based on data from the Office of National Statistics, many of the individual food items that were found to have increased in price, were those most likely to be found in a student’s shopping basket.

Prices have increased by over 60p on the pound for student essentials like oil, pasta, and by nearly 40p for bread, biscuits and chips. Image Credits: ONS

Increase in price of groceries from April 2021 to this September – Image Credits: ONS

The National Union of Students (NUS) has also noted rising accommodation costs, which have increased 62 per cent in the last decade, highlighting another pressure on students during the cost of living crisis. This is having a direct impact on students’ welfare. According to NUS:

96 per cent of students have been forced to reduce their spending.

92 per cent feel that the crisis is affecting their mental health. 

68 per cent of students can no longer afford course materials.

In Cambridge, the Student Union (SU) has recently launched its cost of living campaign, identifying the crisis as “one of the biggest issues facing the student body this year.” The SU’s campaign seeks to draw attention to Cambridge’s contradictory status as both the UK’s most unequal city and host to “the wealthiest university in Europe.” 

The SU warns that, if students are not adequately supported, inequality in Cambridge will “soar even higher” and result in “a record number of students unable to attend/continue their studies despite their hard work.” The SU states five demands for the current academic year in response to this situation:

  1. All Research funding bodies increase PhD stipends by 10 per cent, and that the University allocates more funding specifically for Masters students
  2. The University increases the Cambridge Bursary in line with inflation
  3. The University introduces a special hardship fund to address the Cost of Living Crisis
  4. The University and Colleges centralise and standardise the process of applying for hardship funding
  5. All Colleges commit to a three-year rent freeze that applies to all year groups, including incoming freshers.

The crisis does seem to be a focal point for the SU’s efforts this year, as the ‘Year Goals’ (decided in its 10th October meeting) for five of its eight sabbatical officers include action on this point. The campaign has also recently run both undergraduate and postgraduate surveys to “produce an accurate cost of living index for students.”

Students, while aware of the campaigns run by the student union and the university, seem to still be feeling pressured financially. A student highlighted that: “prices of things have gone up in general so food shopping takes up a lot of the weekly budget.” The student recognised that there would be help available if they were “completely struggling”, but emphasised the need to publicise the available schemes:

“At the start of the year maybe they should add a financial help talk just so we know exactly if there’s any help we can get from the college/uni and keep us more updated on new schemes that help students who are struggling financially.”

Another student mentioned the fact that their college, Homerton, recently halved the price of college meals, and that Homerton does “promote help for students struggling financially”, but also noted that: “although we know we wouldn’t be left alone in that situation it’s still difficult to know what to do when we are.” This sentiment was echoed by another:

“The college did say we have a financial officer if we ever get into financial trouble but it was unclear what he would be able to do for us and under what circumstances.”

Also speaking to The Tab, a student at Fitzwilliam college drew attention to one of the schemes offered by the university, as they noted that the subsidised lunches at the West Hub have been useful, and that they prefer them in terms of price, quality, and portion size to the college buttery. It seems that such an initiative would be just as welcomed at the college level. 

After talking to multiple students, the issues of access to, and knowledge of, such support and schemes provided by the university seem critical at the student level for navigating the cost of living crisis.

Homerton and Fitzwilliam colleges were contacted for comment.

Feature image credits: Matilda Head

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