With an autumn of discontent forecast amidst an unsustainable rise in the cost of living, should students take part in the Don’t Pay UK campaign?
No one is immune to the cost-of-living crisis tearing its way through the UK at the moment, and when it comes to the national conversation there is talk of little else. The student population is no exception. Concerns about the cost of living associated with those in higher education are by no means new, as austerity measures of the past decade have seen consecutive Conservative governments vote in favour of soaring tuition fees and cut financial support to students in the form of maintenance grants and bursaries.
The need for thriftiness has long been a hallmark of the student experience; pot noodle diets and charity shop wardrobes becoming emblematic of the average UK university-goer. It’s a generally accepted fact of life: students are skint. Undoubtedly, there has always been a huge underfunding issue when it comes to higher education. However, there was a time at which older generations could somewhat reasonably attribute the financial woes of students to questionable budgeting principles at the heart of student culture; the all-too-common habit of opting for three nights out a week over a sufficient food shop, for example. To live hedonistically and maybe a little irresponsibly is surely the duty of students, no?
In the context of the ever-growing cost-of-living crisis, however, it is clear that students are increasingly being stripped of the financial freedom to make the kind of irresponsible budgeting decisions that the older generation seems to assume of us. As we enter the new academic year, students face exponential increases in the prices of utilities, accommodation costs, food costs, and well, everything really. Rent prices for student accommodations have increased by 4.4% in the past year, and by over 60% in the last decade, utility bills went up by 54% in April 2022, and are likely to rise substantially again in October. There are reports of significant numbers of students having as little as £50 to spend a month after bills and rent have been paid – with 54% of students having to rely on bail-outs from friends and family to get by as a result. Of course, inevitably, students from lower income families will be hit hardest by the crisis.
Evidently, none of this is to say that financial hardship in the context of the cost-of-living crisis is an experience unique to students – the crisis has been responsible for the largest hit to living standards nationwide in recent times. And with the advent of a nationwide economic crisis, we have seen the proposal of a nationwide solution, in the form of the Don’t Pay UK movement. The purpose of the movement is simple – it advocates that on the date of the energy price cap increase – October 1st – bill payers nationwide should go on a “strike” of sorts and cancel their direct debits to energy companies – creating enough of an adverse economic impact on providers that they will be forced to respond to demands for a return to affordable energy prices. If one million people pledge to take this action, the strike will go ahead. A month out, and the number of pledged supporters stands only at 113,000. But there is reason to believe that the movement has the potential to grow between now and October 1st, with many citing the civil unrest over the poll tax in the late 1980s as an example of a similar and decisively effective precedent for this kind of direct action. What’s more, the campaign has attracted the attention of two heavyweights of the world of political and financial punditry: Martin Lewis and Dominic Cummings. Lewis, one of the nation’s leading financial experts, has issued warnings to the government to get a handle on the cost of living crisis in response to the campaign, claiming it could cause “exponential” problems should plans go ahead. Cummings, former chief adviser to the Prime Minister and architect of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, also made reference to Don’t Pay UK on his twitter, suggesting the campaign had the capacity to invoke further “chaos” this Autumn.
Historically, students have not been shy of participating in direct action when targeted by various political injustices – thinking particularly of the tuition fee protests of 2010 which in many regions escalated into riots. Given the degree to which students are being battered by the cost-of-living crisis and the very real threat of a widespread descent into student poverty, should we not be at the forefront of championing direct action such as the Don’t Pay UK challenge? While the massive increases in energy prices we are seeing are part of unavoidable economic trends across Europe linked to the conflict in Ukraine, the UK government is making a conscious decision to place the burden of increased costs on the wider UK population. Standing at only 19%, the UK has one of the lowest corporate tax rates globally, allowing the profits of big business to grow in line with price increases, whilst wages remain static and many are plunged below the poverty line as prices continue to rise. The burden of the cost-of-living crisis being shouldered by the likes of the student population is as such the result of a political choice made by the UK establishment. Are we not then entitled to hold said establishment to account? Is it not our duty?
Well, kind of. Theoretically speaking, the Don’t Pay UK movement has the potential to hit energy providers where it hurts and force the government to address the plight of those being hit hardest by the crisis. But the campaign relies heavily on mass participation – to encourage one million citizens to involve themselves in what is essentially civil disobedience is no mean feat. Even if those numbers are achieved, there is no guarantee that it will give way to the kind of changes they’re hoping to see, and the negative consequences for participation are potentially severe. Legal experts have been warning of cut off energy supplies, debt collection, and ruined credit scores for those who partake.
The student population of the United Kingdom has a long and rich history of political protest and being wholly unafraid of standing up for their rights. The reality of what is coming for many students this Autumn is a bleak picture of genuinely intolerable levels of financial hardship.
Whether or not Don’t Pay UK is the answer to the problem is yet to be seen, but what we do know is that under current conditions, many students will be faced with uncertainty about the future of their educational careers if they feel they cannot afford to live independently. Something has got to budge.