How will the energy crisis impact students?

With the wholesale cost of natural gas reaching record highs, the UK is braced for a winter energy crisis which it is feared will wreak havoc on businesses and drive the cost of living up for households.

17 energy companies have so far been forced to close this autumn, affecting nearly 2 million customers. A rise in energy costs would be detrimental to all private customers, including universities.

The Gryphon spoke to the University of Leeds on how it plans to mitigate this increase and student housing charity Unipol on how students can reduce energy consumption and protect themselves financially this winter.

In response to question asking how the University of Leeds will be able to mitigate energy prices themselves, a University spokesperson responded detailing the relative strength of the University’s position in the energy market: 

“The University is modelling the impacts of the current commodity market price levels into financial forecasts and has taken steps to manage its exposure to rising commodity costs where possible. While the extra costs are significant, our financial position is currently strong enough to allow us to manage economic pressures such as those arising post pandemic and EU exit.”

The University of Leeds outlined how its own energy supply is designed to be secure regarding rising energy costs stating: “The university is not exposed to small utilities providers and security of supply (the ability to heat and power campus) is not considered to be outside of the usual range.” 

A significant area for the University’s energy consumption is their hall of residences. The University outlined their own “extensive measures in place” such as the installation of new more efficient boilers, the existing double glazing in modern properties alongside secondary glazing in older Victorian properties and the use of LED lighting “across the portfolio”. Included also is a joint energy retrofit project in Victorian properties alongside Leeds Beckett University for the 2021/2022 year. Within all hall residences, thermostatic radiator valves or push-4-hear controls have been installed which further reduce energy consumption. 

When asked if there will be any hardship grants as a result of the predicted increased living costs from the predicted rise in energy costs, the University’s reply signposted their own existing financial assistance. Registered students and PGRs facing financial difficulty can apply to the University Financial Assistance Fund (formerly the Leeds Hardship Fund) which covers help towards the payment of “essential living costs”. Leeds University Union at the same time offers an emergency Financial Assistance Fund to assist students with immediate financial difficulties. 

The University of Leeds does not offer themselves any bills-excluded housing contracts, though many students particularly after first year, will be in a bills-excluded contract meaning an increase in energy prices would directly affect student living costs. Unipol, a registered housing charity and itself providing not-for-profit direct accommodation alongside other advisory services, answered questions aimed at helping students in all accommodation save both energy and money. 

Unipol outlined how the majority of its properties are now offered on an “all-inclusive rent basis”, with the charity not requiring students to find guarantors and that “from this year onwards the majority of students renting with Unipol will not need to pay a deposit.” Unipol’s spokesperson also described the process they have in place to accommodate the rise in prices stating: 

“Energy prices have been rising rapidly over the last few months but this year’s students renting with Unipol will not see a large rise.  Unipol buys energy in bulk and has fixed tariffs in place.  Although over time it is likely that energy prices will stabilise, when setting all-inclusive rents these do need to reflect the real costs associated with energy usage.  Unipol’s Board of Trustees, that includes elected student officers at both Leeds Beckett Students’ Union and Leeds University Union, has oversight of the rent setting process.”

Unipol recommends students in bill-excluded contracts to “shop around and compare for the best deal” specifying using comparison websites to save money by switching providers – although this is dependent on your tariff as it might not the best time to switch. Default tariffs are protected by the Government’s Price cap “but might not necessarily be the cheapest”. All students can cut down on energy costs and Unipol recommends having your heating at the lowest comfortable setting, typically between 18-21°C. “Turning this down by just one degree can save you money.” In addition, Unipol suggests avoiding using electric heaters as these consume huge amount of energy. 

Unipol also answered a question about what students need to look out for in bills-included contracts. It is important when looking at bills-included contracts to look for clarification regarding whether the member (landlord) “retains responsibility” for payment of water charges, utility charges and Council Tax, or whether these charges fall to the tenants to pay.” Fair-use contracts refers to if in the letting agreement, the division of responsibility has any “fair use caps/limits” for energy use which must be accurately reflected. Students also should be aware of written receipts which can be issued for all monies demanded whether for rent, deposit, utility or service charges. Any transactions undertaken in cash will always involve a written receipt provided by the landlord or agent. 

Increasing energy demand is due to fossil fuel reliance and this is what causes the economically damaging high energy costs. Therefore, the University of Leeds’ response to increased energy costs is also part of their climate change response: chiefly their seven principles announced in 2019 aimed at achieving zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and no direct carbon emissions by 2050. 

The University, landlords and the government all have a vested long-term interest in ensuring that energy prices are affordable to students. The pressing question is how high the prices will become.  The fundamental question is how long will the transition away from fossil fuel price dependence take.

Image credit: University of Leeds