Student Poverty: A barrier to academic success

Hannah Dyball 30 January 2018

The Cambridge Student has uncovered that the poorest Cambridge students are facing significant barriers to academic success. In its Cambridge Undergraduate Poverty Survey, TCS found that poorer students faced barriers that included anxiety over money, being forced to waste time on money-saving activities and struggling with course costs.

Most Cambridge students are unaffected by student poverty. In a survey of Cambridge students from 17 different undergraduate colleges, TCS found that most respondents were comfortable on their student income. When asked to rank how comfortable they were on a scale from one to ten, where ten was exceptionally comfortable, 60% of respondents voted eight or above. Most respondents had a student income at least equal to the University of Cambridge’s official living standards estimate for 2017/2018. These findings are consistent with CUSU’s 2016/2017 Big Cambridge Survey, which found that most undergraduate students do not believe income has had a negative impact on their University experience.

Thankfully, our data suggests that severe poverty affects a minority of students at the University of Cambridge, with TCS identifying only 3.3% of survey respondents as living in severe poverty. Severe poverty means that a person cannot afford either regular meals or essentials, such as soap, or both. But, for those living in severe poverty, the costs are astronomical. Skipping meals, for example, significantly impairs mental faculties, meaning that students struggle to concentrate and are less productive. Money worries are also a huge distraction from work.

While the vast majority of students are not in severe poverty, our survey has uncovered that limited incomes can still act as a barrier to academic success.

Some Cambridge students are forced to take up part-time jobs to fund University living costs. Nearly a quarter (24.4%) of TCS survey respondents had taken up a part-time job in the past to fund University living costs. As one survey respondent pointed out, part-time jobs come at the cost of precious revision time during the holidays. Even during the summer, jobs mean that poorer students miss out on the same opportunities to read up on content and broaden their knowledge as wealthier students. For example, poorer students could miss out on the opportunity to accept poorly paid, but highly valuable, internships. Some Cambridge students even have to take a gap year to pay for their University living costs. 

Limited incomes also mean less time for study during term time. In the TCS survey, several students said that time spent cooking, including shopping for ingredients, to cut down on costs, ate up precious working hours. Large course costs, such as for books and field trips, also increase pressure on poorer students. In the 2016/17 Big Cambridge Survey, CUSU reported that 31% of undergraduates found course costs problematic. 

Our poverty survey suggests that students at Cambridge do not all have the same opportunity to succeed. For those living in severe poverty, everyday life is extraordinarily difficult, with students struggling to afford meals and constantly worrying about money. TCS actively encourages all students living in severe poverty to seek financial support. Hardship funding is available at a college level.  The Bell, Abbott and Barnes Funds, provided by the University of Cambridge, also supply financial hardship grants to undergraduate students. Information about all hardship funding can be found online at the University of Cambridge website. You should not have to struggle alone. Please seek support.