Students face a stark choice: food, heat or dropping out

No matter where we look in Europe, things are looking grim for students. Due to multiple crises, more and more students are worrying about how to survive. Yet student poverty is not a recent problem.

European governments have neglected the social dimension of higher education policy for decades, resulting in increasing divestment, commodification of higher education and a resulting dependence on third-party funding.

Austerity policies have had detrimental effects in many economically weaker regions. For students in Europe, the undeniable consequences are severe – they can no longer meet their basic needs. And at this point, this is not only true for vulnerable students – such as those from low socio-economic backgrounds, disabled students or students with children – but for most.

Student housing

Both basic public and student-targeted housing construction have been neglected by many governments despite well-known demographic changes, especially in the cities where students are based. As a result, students are unable to find suitable accommodation, are forced to sleep on friends’ sofas or to live with other people in temporary rooms with bunk beds.

In some countries students are not even able to move out of their childhood homes, especially in southern Europe, resulting in higher transportation costs to get to their place of study and high dependency on their families.

Student homelessness also exists but is rarely talked about. Where student loans or grants are available, they usually do not cover monthly costs like rent and recent reforms have repeatedly led to student grants being cut.

Inflation is fuelled in particular by the war against Ukraine. However, many governments have so far failed to provide answers for how to mitigate the effects on students.

In some countries, for example, Austria, the measures taken benefit students and the general population equally. In others, such as Germany, financial aid to students has been substantially lower than for the so-called working population. In many other countries, however, hardly any targeted measures to help students have happened so far.

As students do not have much money anyway, they often have to resort to cutting down on food. The choice between ‘starving for heating’ or ‘freezing for food’ is the sad reality, with many students considering dropping out of their studies.

Keep the doors open

In the last two decades governments have continuously defunded higher education, causing higher education institutions to turn to entrepreneurialism and diversify their income through (private) third-party funding. But the commodification strategy has evidently failed, with buildings literally falling down around us, like the recent building collapse in Italy.

And what are the consequences this coming winter? Many higher education institutions are turning down the heat and turning off the lights in their buildings. Others are already planning on closing their doors completely, for example, in France, Poland or Latvia. But how can students learn properly if we are forced to freeze or cannot even access our campuses?

Shutting universities will push the costs onto individuals who are already struggling to make ends meet. We should be aiming to keep public buildings open for people. Not only would this reduce the costs for students who do not have to use their heating at home while at university, but it would also reduce the overall energy footprint of the population: keeping public buildings open to collectivise energy consumption is part of the solution to the current energy crisis.

This strategy should also be applied to public canteens since collective cooking reduces energy usage and supports students amid the food crisis.

With all these crises going on, the mental health of students has deteriorated in recent years. The time spent in paid employment to finance cost-of-living rises cuts into study and leisure time.

The daily struggle to make ends meet has caused the mental health of many students to deteriorate and the closure of higher education institutions during the pandemic added to feelings of loneliness.

Clearly, not being able to participate in student life has severe effects on student well-being. At the same time there is a lack of mental health support for students all over Europe. We are at risk of losing an entire generation of students.

International students

International students fall between the cracks. Some countries, like the Netherlands, are advising them not to take up their studies at all if accommodation cannot be found.

International students usually do not benefit from national support systems and tend to be forgotten when it comes to measures regarding the recent crises. Additionally, more and more countries are looking into introducing tuition fees for international students to consolidate higher education budgets.

The result is that only rich internationals are now able to study in these countries, internationalisation of higher education is suffering and the fundamental value of free education is under threat.

Even Norway, which has always been known for its free quality education, is now considering introducing fees for third country nationals.

However, calculations show that international students benefit receiving countries, not only with regard to cultural and knowledge exchange, but also financially through the taxes they pay and their availability for the labour market.

Student poverty has been neglected for too long: poverty violates basic human rights such as being able to live in dignity, access to education and the right to fully participate in society.

The fight against student poverty must therefore be seen as a task for society as a whole. We need policy-makers to keep higher education institutions open with the lights on through adequate public funding, investment in student housing and upscaling financial and health support to combat student poverty and ensure some light in the darkness.

Iris Kimizoglu is a member of the executive committee of the European Students’ Union. As a student representative she has been advocating for a more inclusive higher education system and the removal of educational barriers. Until recently she represented Germany in the Bologna Follow-up Group (BFUG) Working Group on Social Dimension (2020-21). Emily MacPherson is an executive committee member in the European Students’ Union. Before this she was a student representative and disability activist in the UK and Norway. She is working for a more inclusive higher education system.