A report by MillionPlus, the association for modern universities in the UK, said a student recruitment and retention crisis could be created if the challenges facing students are not addressed.
In its report, Learning with the lights off: students and the cost-of-living crisis, the organisation welcomed a raft of measures from institutions to mitigate the financial strain facing the UK’s poorest students.
However, key recommendations have been proposed for the UK government, the Office for Students and the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS).
It recommends immediate increases to student maintenance grants, hardship funds and better inclusion of students in wider cost-of-living support measures, announced in September.
Professor Rama Thirunamachandran, vice-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University and chair of MillionPlus, said: “While the cost-of-living crisis will affect students from all backgrounds, it is clear from this analysis that it will have the greatest impact on those students who were already facing significant cost pressures.
“MillionPlus universities understand these worries, having been at the forefront of the widening participation agenda over the last two decades.
“I am proud that this report outlines the innovative and direct measures they are taking to support at this challenging time.
“However, this risk can’t be averted by universities alone.”
Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of MillionPlus, said students come from a range of backgrounds which impacts the type of support required.
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She said: “We must challenge the narrative that all students are 18-year-olds and are able to rely on parental support; increasingly with household budgets being squeezed this is not a lived reality.
“For mature students, those who are from low participation areas, first-in-family or commuter students, the cost-of-living crisis seriously risks forcing them out of higher education and damaging their future prospects.
“Much of the assistance programmes introduced by the UK government up to now do not reach or apply to higher education students.
“Maintenance loans have also not come close to rising in line with inflation, meaning they have now fallen to a lower level than the national minimum wage.
“If the UK government does not address the financial challenges ahead for students this academic year, it risks a student recruitment and retention crisis which could have a long-term damaging impact on its own education and skills agenda.”
The organisations will be holding a fringe event at the SNP conference on Monday, where the Scottish government’s higher education minister, Jamie Hepburn, will take part in a panel discussion.
Mr Hepburn described the report as “extremely concerning” which “reinforces the urgent need for the UK government to properly address the cost-of-living crisis.”
He said: “Most of the key policy levers needed to address the crisis still lie with the UK government so we continue to urge them to use all the levers at their disposal to tackle this emergency on the scale required to meet the needs of people.”
Mr Hepburn pointed to the Scottish government’s £16 million payment in hardship funding to colleges and universities for the current academic year to support higher and further education students in financial hardship, and the payment of almost £3 billion to help households face the increased cost of living.
He added: “And just this week, the Scottish Parliament voted to pass The Cost of Living [Tenant Protection] Bill, which gives ministers temporary power to cap rents for private and social tenants, as well as for student accommodation.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We understand global inflationary pressures are squeezing household finances and people are worried about covering the basics.
“To support students with living costs, we have increased maintenance loans every year, meaning disadvantaged students now have access to the highest-ever amounts in cash terms.
“Students who are worried about making ends meet should speak to their university about the support they can access.
“This year universities can boost their hardship funds by drawing on up to £261m we have made available through the Office for Students.”