Time to take student hunger seriously
As a country, we spend a lot of money and effort to help as many people as possible access education because it’s valuable to both individuals and to us as a society. But while it’s great to open the door to more people entering university, what good does it serve to then watch working class people drop out or break down under the strain of student poverty?
We understand the importance of education, and we understand the ways that poverty and food insecurity during education impact life chances. So why are we letting almost a quarter of Scottish students go unsupported?
Part of the problem, in my opinion, is a lack of relevant education in schools. While budgeting and kitchen skills aren’t enough to solve poverty, there’s a huge difference in food security between people who arrive at university with those skills and those without. In a recent study I conducted, I interviewed four Edinburgh students, from Finland, Malaysia, Italy and Hungary. All four had found that coming into university with cooking and budgeting skills had made it possible to live, frugally but adequately, off their grants and still get adequate nutrition and a balanced diet. But all four recalled living with people, primarily Scottish students, who arrived at university unable to make a cup of tea or boil an egg, and whose reliance on takeaway and ready meals made living within their means impossible.
There’s a huge life skills gap between young people from a middle-class background, who are more likely to have had parents with the time, energy and resources to teach them, more likely to access resources like the existing ‘get ready for uni’ style cook courses run in the city, and have more disposable income to experiment, and young people from more disrupted or disadvantaged backgrounds. Across Scotland, we’re relying on parents to teach these skills, and that only widens the skills gap.
Schools may teach food science, but they’re rarely teaching people the skills to cook every day on a shoestring, much less wider life skills like planning, budgeting, paying bills, managing debt and more. In Cyrenians, we’ve run classes for new students at QMU to plug that gap, but we can only reach 7 or 8 students at a time. If we want to see people from disadvantaged backgrounds get the same educational, social and employment opportunities as their more privileged peers, we have to offer accessible, open opportunities to learn life skills throughout the school system, as well as improving support for students past the end of compulsory schooling.
One thing we can do in the meantime to help lower-income students make the most of higher and further education is pantries like the one we run at QMU, which our volunteer Elouise wrote about here. Because they offer affordable access to food, the pantries make food shopping affordable for students who otherwise would struggle to afford food. Being involved in a community-led enterprise like the pantry also helps students take control of the situation, supporting each other and improving mental health and wellbeing.
We can bridge the attainment gap in universities, and help tackle the inequalities faced by lower-income students. But we have to stop laughing at student poverty, and take students seriously as people facing real struggles.