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Hardship funding for students: what’s available?

Updated 02 August 2022

4min read

Kate Morgan
Staff Writer

Being a modern day student isn’t a cheap affair.

In 2011 university tuition fees were raised from £3,000 to £9,000 per year, dubbing this academic year the ‘scramble’ year, with more students fighting for their place on courses than ever before.  

Hardship funding for students: what’s available?

Fast forward ten years and the cost of attending university is still a whopping sum.

Throw in a global pandemic and a cost of living crisis, and the financial difficulties felt by students have become all too real. 

A 2021 Universities UK survey indicated students across English universities faced more need for hardship funding during the COVID-19 pandemic, with requests rising in more than 75 per cent of universities.  

However, we’re sure this comes as no surprise, right? The cost of living continues to rise, petrol prices are soaring, there are problems in food production, strains in the labour market, energy problems and inflation rates have also had an astronomical rise — seeing the largest spike in the UK since 2011.

But how do students fit in with all of this? 

The BBC News Freedom of Information requests revealed that at 95 UK universities, the number of students asking for emergency cash nearly tripled between 2018–19 and 2020–21.

Responses also suggest that the amount of hardship funding being received by students nearly doubled in 2021 — with many students admitting to BBC News that they couldn’t afford rent after bar and retail work dried up during the pandemic.  

132 higher education institutions responded to BBC Freedom of Information (FOI) requests about their hardship funds from 2018-2021.

And although universities say they have stepped up during the ‘difficult times’ to help, the number of students applying for hardship funding has soared — but individual payments have fallen: 

  • In the 2018/19 academic year, 45,850 students applied for hardship funding, and they each received an average of £902 

  • In the 2019/20 academic year, 70,109 students applied, and received an average of £811 each 

  • In the 2020/21 academic year, 124,555 students applied for hardship funding, and they each received an average of £826 

Many institutions introduced COVID-19 hardship funds, and the Office for Students (OfS) even gave away an extra £70m of hardship funding to English institutions during the 2020–21 academic year — demonstrating how the pandemic and cost of living affected students across the country. 

What is hardship funding? 

The Student Hardship Fund (SHF) is provided by universities to help students who are experiencing genuine and unavoidable financial difficulties and are struggling with their living costs.

The amount you can get is decided by your university or college and it will either be paid in a lump sum or instalments. 

How does hardship funding work? 

Although you might be experiencing financial difficulties, to receive the funding you will also need to be one of the following: 

  • A student with children, especially single parents 

  • A mature student with existing financial commitments 

  • From a low-income family 

  • Studying with a disability  

  • A student that was previously in care (a ‘care leaver’) 

  • Homeless or living in a foyer 

How do you apply? 

To apply for SHF you will need to contact the student services department at your university, and they will decide whether or not you qualify. 

You’ll need a copy of your letter from Student Finance England showing how much student finance you get, as well as any documents about your finances – such as bank statements and rent details.  

Money from your university or college won’t usually be counted as income when working out your entitlement to benefits or tax credits unless it’s for day-to-day living costs. 

How much will you get? 

The SHF is a discretionary grant, offering support of up to £2,500 in an academic year which does not need to be paid back.

So, if you think you’re eligible, it’s definitely worth applying for the extra help. 

International students 

International students — from the EU and further overseas — can apply for the International Hardship Fund (IHF).

The IHF fund can provide up to £1,000 financial support per year to students experiencing emergency situations or those experiencing a financial deficit over the academic year.  

The fund cannot be used for payment of tuition fees. Applications (once open) will be accepted up to 16 June 2023 or until funds have been used, whichever comes sooner. 

What to do if your application is rejected 

If your hardship fund application is rejected, some universities allow you to appeal the decision.

If your original application is rejected, or they reject your appeal, there are some alternative financial sources that are worth exploring. 

  1. Student bursaries and grants: Before you apply for hardship funding, most universities will require you to have explored bursaries, grants and scholarships. If you haven’t, it will be worth spending some time searching for extra funding that doesn't need to be repaid. 

  2. Disabled Students' Allowances (DSA): DSA isn't just for students with physical disabilities. If you have a sensory impairment, mental health condition, learning difficulty or any medical condition affecting your ability to study, you could be eligible for this non-repayable support. 

  3. Student bank account overdraft: When you open a student bank account, you’ll likely have a zero per cent overdraft on the account. This is one of the safest forms of borrowing for students, meaning if you’re near your agreed-upon limit, it will be worth contacting your bank to see if they will extend your allowance. It’s worth being aware of how these rates change once you graduate, so speak to a financial adviser to learn more.  

What does the future hold for students? 

The world of education is a hard space to navigate at present.

The surge in hardship funding requests against the current cost-of-living crisis and rising inflation makes higher education feel as though it is more of a privilege than a right for many students in the UK.  

But even through this hardship, students have said just how important their education is for their future.

Many have said their time at university is a time for growth, building their knowledge and laying the paving blocks for them to land higher salaried jobs than they could have hoped for without a degree.

So, ask yourself, do you want to make the investment? 

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About the author
Kate has written for leading publications and blue chip companies over the last 20 years.