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“Can’t afford to wash my clothes”: Cherwell survey reveals struggle students face in cost of living squeeze

Oliver Hall reports.

The last few months have seen an unprecedented cost of living crisis grip the country and affect all levels of society.  Rises in energy costs have combined with runaway inflation across the board to see budgets squeezed more than ever.  Young people and students have been some of the most heavily impacted, as many are non-earners who do not qualify for the available government support packages.  Now, a survey by Cherwell can reveal that Oxford students are by no means immune to these pressures, with many are fearing the ramifications of rising prices  as the term begins.

Firstly, the survey asked whether or not the increase in the cost of living changed the respondents’ behaviour in the build-up to returning to university.  The responses were, as expected, overwhelming.  88% of people said that they had changed their preparation and all those surveyed said they anticipated their behaviour changing once they arrived.

Perhaps even more concerning for the University itself is that more than 77% of respondents thought their academic performance would be affected by rising prices in the coming year.  This may go hand in hand with the fact that two-thirds of people identified food as the main area that they would have to cut back on.  Countless studies, including one from 2017 by the US National Library of Medicine, identified a clear association between unsatisfactory nutrition or changes in dietary habits and academic performance.

Students’ social lives are also a significant part of their university experience which stands to be heavily affected.  Aside from simply adding enjoyment, a diverse and lively social life is vital for maintaining positive mental health and a healthy work-life balance, something often stressed by the university itself in advice.  Again, 88% of people said that they would be forced to change their social patterns when returning to Oxford, a fact which also signals a worrying term ahead for student-relient entertainment venues across the city.

Some participants were willing to share their personal stories anonymously, showing the severity of the situation faced by students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. One mature student said that the stress is already “very oppressive” and that with groceries and bills as their only expenditure, they “won’t be able to eat in hall, get coffee, or buy clothes.”

Another told of how they had reached the limit on their overdraft and “can’t afford to wash their clothes” until they get paid next week.

The survey went on to look at the response of the University and the various support packages that different colleges are offering.  Some students have already criticised the support as insufficient, with one highlighting that although they were initially “relieved” to see that their bursary had increased by £300 it didn’t do much to counter the £500 rise in the cost of living in college.  Only one respondent said they had received any kind of confirmation of support to come from a college fund and that was ‘non-specific’.  In total, just 11% of people said they were satisfied with the university’s response.

There was no shortage of suggestions of ways to help combat the situation, meanwhile, with multiple people suggesting some kind of living allowance for students, almost everyone calling for lower-priced subsidised meals in college, and others a rent freeze.

Oxford University faces particular scrutiny in this matter due to its policy of prohibiting jobs inside term time.  The rule has been highlighted as exclusionary in the past as it could be seen to prevent those with less money from supplementing their income, and this  problem has only been exacerbated by recent price rises.

The most striking response perhaps came from a History student, who concluded the survey by writing, “As things stand, I anticipate freezing this winter. I anticipate social life decreasing because a number of cafes, pubs, and other social spaces will have to close. I’m scared and have already begun thinking about quitting if things get too dire.”  

Image credit: Wang Sum Luk

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