"All of my income disappeared overnight": economic precarity for students during the pandemic

Food bank Steve Rhodes.jpeg

Black and white image of a food bank warehouse
"Food Bank" by Steve Rhodes
Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Inès Girard, Fiona Vanston and Elodie Faïd
29 Juillet 2021

In our last article, we addressed the impact of Covid-19 on students' mental health. We highlighted how financial struggles increase the risk of mental health issues, and the ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic has deepened students’ precarity.

Precarity is an important risk factor for mental health issues, and the Covid-19 crisis created economic issues for many students, in large part due to dwindling employment opportunities for students as lockdown measures were put in place across the globe. According to a study conducted for the French student union FAGE, 72% of the students who had a professional activity before the pandemic have seen their contracts impacted or interrupted. Similarly, a study of the Office of National Statistics in the UK showed that industries such as retail and hospitality, which are particularly important for students' jobs, have been among the worst affected by sanitary measures, with a 65-90% drop in opportunities. 

“Has Covid-19 worsened my student situation? It's very simple, I lost my two jobs suddenly: waitress and cashier in a small business. All of my income disappears overnight, while the sky-high prices of rent, groceries shopping in big cities and even your school fees remain the same” explains Iris, a student in Lyon.

Consequently, this loss of income has reduced the financial resources of students, leaving them struggling  to properly eat, to pay their rent, or to afford health care. According to the FAGE study, three quarters of young people between 18 and 25 years of age declared having encountered financial difficulties in the last three months, and 54% reported having difficulties paying their rent.  

“At the start of the lockdown it was very complicated. I was giving private lessons to two children and the parents didn't want me to come to their house anymore, for obvious reasons. They didn't want to keep our lessons online. Overnight, I was losing 80 euros per week, 240 euros per month, or more than half of my rent budget. I'm lucky, I was able to count on my parents to provide what I needed, but I feel guilty for asking them that at 23, especially when they are helping my sister who also lost her student job”, said Alexia, a student at the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon.

Indeed, the situation is worse for those whose parents’ jobs have also been impacted, aggravating the pre-existing economic inequalities among students and at the level of the society more generally. Students in precarious situations must find temporary solutions in order to make ends meet at the end of the month: some sell their clothes, others find multiple low-paid odd jobs, which can be time consuming and put academic success at risk.

As one student commented to BBC News:People don’t realise, they view students as people who go out partying and waste their money. Most of my friends at university never went out a single night because of financial struggles, and that was before lockdown”.

Even more worrying are the health impacts of these financial difficulties. While some students already cannot access overpriced health services, some endanger their health by having to make the inevitable choices these economic consequences entail. Indeed, some feel too much “shame” to acknowledge the precariousness of their situations, not wishing to aggravate those of their parents. Thus, some explain that they prefer to limit themselves to one meal a day rather than ask their loved ones for help, hiding the reality of their situation from their parents, friends and school staff. The FAGE study mentioned above underlines that 53% of students face obstacles in affording a healthy diet. In recent months, thousands of young people have turned to charities and government food aid. Meanwhile, in big cities, long queues can be seen in front of food distribution facilities dedicated to the students. One student commented to Le Mans: “Without a student job, I had 30 euros a month left to eat”. 

A report by the French student union UNEF highlights the importance of housing fees in students’ budgets. Housing constitutes the main spending for many, representing almost 70% of the monthly budget of a French student. Thus, being deprived of financial resources has a strong impact on students’ ability to pay their rents. Given that housing costs are especially high for students coming from regions far from big cities where universities are mostly situated, these students found themselves in an increasingly precarious situation. Moreover, because of health measures, many students continue to pay rent for accommodation they cannot use. In England, this has led students to protest for a rent rebate. While some universities provide financial aid for students, such as the University of Manchester which offered a rent reduction for half of the year, these measures remain marginal. 

The dramatic increase in economic hardships and the vulnerabilities of those in difficulty have unprecedented consequences for pre-existing inequalities in higher education. Students experiencing financial difficulties may be more likely to drop out of school in order to find paid work and survive. Likewise, students from low-income families are more likely to change their plans to go to college to find odd jobs that allow them to help their struggling families. This strongly impacts socio-economic inequalities in education, reinforcing the absence of the poorest within the system supposed to guarantee them a way out of the cycle of poverty while once again favoring the most privileged. 

Similarly, some students explain that they are forced to change their plans and career aspirations if they want to continue their higher education. Thus Kouassi Jean David, a student at Le Mans (France), told Ouest France how he chose to reorient himself in September 2020 in a bachelor's degree in physics and chemistry. While previously pursuing his childhood dream of studying aeronautical engineering, he could no longer afford the high tuition fees of €6000 per year. He told the paper that he would haver preferred to become and engineer but this was no longer possible, as his university fees amounted to 420 of the 450 euros his parents gave him each month. Unable to find a student job, he was thus forced to reorient himself to meet "his obligation to succeed" for his parents, who remained in Côte d'Ivoire and had made significant sacrifices so he could study in France.

In conclusion, the economic ramifications of the pandemic have wide ranging consequences for students, both in terms of their day to day life and their academic choices. These impacts will likely be felt both now, and into the future as changing academic programmes or sacrificing health and wellbeing could have long-term significance.

 

This article is the sixth and final piece in a series entitled 'Impact of Covid-19 on Higher Education: the Student Perspective', which presents the impact of Covid 19 on higher education. Through the stories of Sasha, Iris, Fiona, Quentin, and others, we invite you to explore the wider pattern of students’ experiences, their difficulties, their distress and their doubts, in addition to the challenges faced by teachers and university staff. The article series is part of a broader project at the Sciences Po Law Clinic investigating inequalities in higher education in France, and is delivered by Elodie Faïd, Fiona Vanston and Inès Girard (pictured below), three Master’s students in Human rights and humanitarian action at Sciences Po Paris working with Right to Education Initiative.

Read the rest of the series and find out more about our work on higher education here.

Elodie FaidFiona VanstonInes Girard

 

Impact of Covid-19 on Higher Education: the Student Perspective

 
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