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Supporting low-income students beyond financial aid

Amy Dunning is the former JCR president of Lincoln College in Oxford. Here, Amy shares some advice for Students’ Unions on how they can best support students from low-income households as they arrive at university over the next few weeks.

Starting university can be an exciting time for any young person, filled with new experiences and personal growth. However, this transition can be uniquely challenging for low-income freshers in the UK – and this has never been more true than in the ongoing cost of living crisis. A native survey found that 91% of students are affected in some way by the crisis. For one in five, this means not being able to afford essentials like food, rent and fuel.

As Students’ Unions continue to promise inclusivity and belonging, it’s essential to ensure that these promises are well-founded and relate to all students – including those from low-income backgrounds – by ensuring their university experience is both enriching and also genuinely empowering. 

a group of students sit on a hill

While forms of financial aid such as scholarships and grants are vital for low-income freshers, it is important that we also focus on a more holistic approach that covers a broader range of support. From tips on navigating campus to promoting mental wellbeing, there are many ways to ensure a smoother transition into university life. 

Alongside this, it’s important to recognise that low-income students often face a multitude of challenges beyond financial constraints. Marginalisation can take many forms; students might be care leavers, estranged students, or children of disabled parents. These individuals may encounter unique obstacles that require additional tailored support. Students’ Unions must adopt an individualised approach that acknowledges their diverse backgrounds and experiences. Beyond this, there are many ways to make the university experience more accessible for as many students as possible.

Ahead of Freshers 

Students’ Unions play a pivotal role in easing the transition for low-income students even before they arrive for Freshers’ week. The process of securing appropriate accommodation can be particularly overwhelming, meaning that it is especially crucial for Students’ Unions to recognise the unique challenges that low-income freshers might encounter and take proactive steps to provide invaluable assistance. This could involve offering resources such as curated lists of affordable housing options in partnership with external accommodation services.

a girl scrolls on an iphone

By collating comprehensive information about housing alternatives, associated costs, and potential hidden fees, Students’ Unions can empower students to make well-informed choices. Specialised guidance on understanding lease agreements, effectively budgeting for utilities, and navigating the campus commute can significantly bolster low-income students’ confidence in tackling the intricacies of university housing. Through these dedicated efforts, Students’ Unions can alleviate a considerable amount of stress and contribute to establishing a solid foundation for low-income freshers.

Upon arrival 

During arrival week, Freshers’ programs can be specifically tailored to provide targeted support for low-income students, ensuring a smooth and successful transition to university. This can include workshops and sessions that address the unique challenges faced by low-income freshers, on practical topics such as financial literacy

Some students sit around in a dorm room talking

Additionally, you could signpost students to groups and campaigns aimed at supporting low-income students. An example from my time at Oxford was Class Act, which works to represent and advocate for low-income and first generation students at a university. More nationally, there is the 93% Club, which has clubs at numerous universities across the UK. 

The question of work 

Additionally, it is often imperative for some students to secure part-time employment during these first weeks, especially in the case of those whose loans do not cover the complete cost of university. Students’ Unions can play a pivotal role in this by not only guiding students towards suitable job opportunities but also by educating them on their employment rights. SUs can provide workshops and resources that highlight crucial regulations concerning hours, wages, and working conditions, safeguarding students from potential exploitation. 

A woman pulls a pint

While some universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, might prohibit students from taking on jobs during their academic tenure due to concerns about academic performance, it’s important for SUs to advocate for students’ needs and understand that, for many, part-time work is not a mere choice but a necessity to ensure sufficient funds for their livelihood. 

In this context, SUs can support students by curating a list of part-time positions that not only offer financial support but also respect the students’ need for a balanced university life, collaborating with businesses that provide flexible schedules and may have a history of employing students in similar positions. By prioritising both employment rights education and well-suited job options, SUs can empower low-income students to navigate work and academics successfully while also ensuring that these factors do not take away from much needed downtime.

Attending social events 

Students’ Unions can take an extra step in supporting low-income students by ensuring that social events during the Freshers’ period are low cost or free of charge. These events not only foster a sense of community but also provide opportunities for students to connect and build friendships. By eliminating financial barriers to participation, Students’ Unions can create an inclusive environment where low-income freshers can engage in these activities without worrying about their budget. 

a club night

During my time as JCR president at Lincoln, we ensured there were not only free events to attend every day, but also that we were supplying both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drink options to all freshers. We also ensured there were anonymous channels to contact a member of the organising committee if students needed further financial support, for example with club tickets, ensuring that no student was left feeling excluded due to financial constraints. This approach promotes a positive start to their university experience and emphasises that all students, regardless of their financial background, deserve equal access to the social aspects of university life.

Mental health support 

Recognising the critical importance of maintaining good mental health, it is imperative that universities and Students’ Unions collaborate to make comprehensive support available to low-income students throughout their entire university journey. Financial anxieties and the emotional challenges associated with transitioning into university life can significantly impact mental wellbeing, and leave students feeling isolated. This can be further exacerbated when students are also first-generation, and thus may not have family members who have been in their situation to turn to for support. 

By offering counselling services with practitioners trained in the unique needs of low-income students, universities create a space for students to address their concerns and develop effective coping strategies. Continuous support is crucial, as it acknowledges that mental health is not simply a buzzword which loses relevance when freshers’ week is over. Ensuring that mental health resources remain accessible to low-income students equips them to navigate both academic and personal challenges.

Because of this, whilst working in the JCR, I was particularly committed to reforming and enhancing mental health support for students. One notable challenge we faced was the tradition of having college chaplains lead mental health support efforts. This approach, while well-intentioned, sometimes made students uncomfortable, especially those who understandably did not identify with Christian religious leaders as their preferred source of support, even though the chaplains did receive training on mental health support for individuals of all faith backgrounds.

A therapy session in progress

In response, I advocated for the introduction of independent counsellors within the college, a process which is still ongoing for the current JCR officers. Alongside this, we also prioritised the short-term, collaborating closely with the University Counselling Service to raise awareness of their services among the student body, running workshops with representatives from the service on good mental health practices, as well as knowing when to reach out for support. Finally, we highlighted the availability of mental health support from the NHS through referrals from the college nurse, which often significantly reduced waiting times when compared to broader NHS mental health services. 

Of course there is still vast room for improvement; it’s important to acknowledge that mental health services, both within universities and in the broader health service are frequently underfunded and under-resourced and so face many challenges in their efforts to universalise support. Despite this, our approach to student mental health provisions was focused on making resources more visible and to reassure students that accessible mental health support was both essential and available, and that the JCR was willing to advocate for all students’ mental health needs, regardless of background.

Last word 

Low-income freshers embarking on their university experience require a multifaceted and compassionate approach to support. While financial assistance from the university undoubtedly plays a vital role, it’s clear that Students’ Unions, too,  have a role to play in ensuring a seamless transition. By addressing accommodation challenges, tailoring orientation programs, providing free social events, and prioritising mental health support, Students’ Unions can create an environment where all students, regardless of their financial background, can flourish. 

Indeed, the positive effects of these measures go way beyond the campus walls, allowing young people to thrive within their new cities, reducing anxiety and often, by consequence, improving academic performance too. A holistic approach not only enriches the university experience for low-income freshers but also sets a precedent for inclusive practices that contribute to a more diverse, resilient, and empowered wider community.

To read more about the challenges faced by students at university, check out our deep-dive into student loneliness.