My name is Stella Maris, and I am here in my capacity as the Rector’s Assessor for the University of St Andrews.
I am immensely grateful to have been given the opportunity to speak to you all today. I would like to begin by explaining a little bit about my position; the Rector of the University of St Andrews is elected by the students and has the duty of chairing the University Court. It is within their gift to appoint a Rector’s Assessor, a role that varies across the five Scottish universities that retain the ancient tradition. The particular iteration that St Andrews subscribes to gives the Rector’s Assessor responsibilities as a governor and trustee of the University and requires the position holder to liaise with the Students’ Association, Court Members and other relevant groups as the need arises.
I am currently studying part-time and am on track to secure a degree in English and Philosophy. In addition to this, I am a full voting member of my institution’s University Court, its highest governing body.
As both a trustee of my university, and a student representative, I’ve often had to balance my commitment to prioritise both the current and future sustainability of my institution in the context of its strategic focus, with the needs of my constituents, a diverse collection of students from a wide range of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.
Cost of living crisis
My contribution to this seminar is largely informed by an analysis of my own institution’s approach to addressing the cost-of-living crisis, with particular thanks to the members of the Principal’s Office and senior leadership team who were so kind as to set aside time to meet with me and my team as we sought to gain a better understanding of the initiatives being introduced to tackle the crisis. Through these conversations, we were able to identify a common motif, an underlying thread that everyone we talked to inevitably saw fit to stress provided the foundation for their actions. We observed it in several forms; from seeing the importance of consultation and collaboration credited with shaping the institution’s understanding of the unique needs of different student cohorts, to the view that we have to consider the extent to which our investments and initiatives promote the dignity and wellbeing of our students, with the core aim of contributing to the cost of living well. The common thread was that of compassion, there was a real willingness to listen and learn from students, to respect the value of their testimony and lived experiences and work with them.
Over the course of my degree studying Philosophy, I have developed a real interest in the study of epistemology, essentially the study of knowledge, it considers how we come to possess knowledge and how our motivations can shape the way we process information about the world. Having resisted the very real temptation to draw you all, a readily available, somewhat captive, audience, into a long discussion about my favourite topic, I will instead briefly explain why it is relevant to this topic.
There are many approaches we can take to address the cost-of-living crisis, all of which will manifest as a series of actions and initiatives, proposed, and actioned, in a fashion particular to their own disposition. They will, nevertheless, remain united in their aim to achieve the same overarching result represented by the rather ubiquitous proclamation that commits to ‘tackle the cost-of-living crisis’ impacting us all, some more than others. However, in the course of committing to that vague and somewhat omnipresent proclamation permeating much of our public dialogue, we must consider why it is so important to get our institutions, staff, and students through this acutely difficult time, and why it is so crucial we do so in a sustainable way.
Though my focus will be on the impact this is having on students, my privileged position within the governing body of my university has exposed me to the reality of how the crisis touches all aspects of how our institutions function effectively. From their capacity to support the human infrastructure that defines their pedagogical and philosophical purpose, driving forward the necessary innovation and research needed to push progress, to their ability to invest with confidence in the structural changes necessary to embed a culture of sustainability. Institutions have the potential to empower behaviour change through education and investment in infrastructure that enables it without placing undue pressure on the most vulnerable and deprived members of our communities.
Action and knowledge
This is where my earlier point about epistemology comes in; our actions are shaped by what we know, and our knowledge forms the foundation for our ability to analyse and evaluate the world around us, with our motivations shaping both our willingness to act on that knowledge and the nature of the action we take in response to it. Naturally, this requires us to first establish what we know about the impact of the increased cost of living, universally acknowledged to represent a crisis, and how it is affecting our institutions.
We know that there is a cost-of-living crisis. The price of food has skyrocketed, energy costs are soaring, and research done by the NUS has established that these factors and many others are having a serious impact on students, both financially and psychologically with 90% of those surveyed saying that the rising cost-of-living had negatively impacted their mental health. Furthermore, the NUS reports that concerns about cost-of-living pressures are greater among older students, postgraduates and those who work or have caring responsibilities.
Pressure on students
A research briefing published in October of 2022 on the available student support for undergraduates across the UK found that “82% of students worried about making ends meet, 66% said their maintenance loan was not large enough, and 63% [said] asking their university for financial support or advice was not easy.” From these statistics we can draw out three crucial elements that underpin the pressure on students. The worry associated with making ends meet, the insufficient financial support available to them during the crisis, and widespread difficulty accessing funding due to procedural or administrative barriers.
Resources are limited across the funding landscape, and, while universities can do their bit to contribute to the support available to staff and students in their communities, it is important that we acknowledge the value of a more efficient approach that recognises their place within the larger societal context. We need a framework that correctly positions higher and further educational bodies alongside local and national governmental structures, working with them to widen the reach and effectiveness of the available resources to benefit as many of those in need as possible.
What’s happening at St Andrews?
My university provides a case study that exemplifies this. One of the programs implemented by the University of St Andrews subsidises bus travel for those that do not already benefit from the Scottish government scheme that provides free bus travel for those under 22.
At a most basic level, the scheme has resulted in more cash staying in the pockets of students and staff at a time when pennies can literally be the difference between someone being fed or going hungry on any given day. In fact, within the first two weeks following the launch of the initiative, staff and students saved over £17,000 as a cohort and the number of them choosing more sustainable travel options increased substantially. Though initial plans were to run the pilot for six months, senior leadership are now in discussions about extending this subsidisation for years to come. Additional benefits to the scheme include a reduction in our carbon footprint and increased access to cheap sustainable travel across the region for members of our community. This initiative was formulated on the back of consultation with students about what they really need to survive and thrive, and importantly to do so in a way that allows them to participate in sustainable schemes that empower them to contribute to reducing our impact on the planet, something that is incredibly important to many in our community.
Other initiatives include subsidised food initiatives that have cost the institution over £84,000 since they launched but have provided 50,000 heavily subsidised meals to our community, with students representing 60% of those taking advantage.
The core of the message I want to communicate today lies in the importance of introspection in examining what exactly our motivations are for seeking to tackle this crisis. Institutions need to verbalise their commitment to not only providing the resources to get students through this crisis, but in doing so consider the value of not only addressing the cost of living, but more specifically, the true cost of living well.
Other speakers at the seminar were: Erica Conway, Chair of BUFDG (the British Universities Finance Directors Group) and Chief Financial Officer at the University of Birmingham; Professor Robert Van de Noort, Vice-Chancellor, University of Reading; and Hannah Sketchley, Campaigns and Influencing Manager, NUS UK.