The cost of studying at UK universities has risen drastically since the fee cap was lifted to £9,000 per year in England in 2012. This means many students are forced into taking out huge loans, picking up part-time work, or – as new findings suggest – turning to increasingly desperate measures to make money.
Almost eight in 10 (78%) said they were struggling to get by, which is unsurprising given the gap between most students' monthly income and expenses. The average student outside London receives a maintenance loan of around £600 per month and £138.50 per month from their parents, but the average monthly cost of living is £770 per month.
More than a tenth (11%) of students revealed they had used their bodies (sex work and drugs trials) or resorted to betting to make money. This was only slightly lower than the proportion who said they had turned to their university for help (15%), which Save the Student said was "testament to how patchy student support is".
One in 20 (5%) of the 76% of students who said they relied on part-time work to bring in extra cash said they use their bodies, and 11% turn to such work when faced with emergency or unexpected costs. This included sex work, sugar dating and webcamming, as well as jobs like medical trials and life modelling.
Carmen, a second-year student at the University of Kent, got involved in webcamming after hearing it was lucrative from a friend who was already doing it. She finds it easy to fit into her work as she has so few contact hours at university and said she could "easily" make a grand a week if she worked consistently.
Social media makes the whole process relatively straightforward, she said: "The agency I used does training via WhatsApp: they send text, video and voice notes about how to set up your account, along with everything you need to do before you begin camming. They also offer ongoing support via a group chat, where they answer questions and offer advice and scripts.
"I get all kinds of requests: smoking fetish, which consists of blowing smoke at the camera or on a dildo, 'sploshing' (pouring food over yourself, like baked beans or yoghurt), or taboo – such as when someone wants you to pretend to be their sister. For the most part, it's just groping your boobs a bit. I've even had a few calls where I've sat fully clothed and just spoke to them about nothing sex-related whatsoever."
She said that while her earnings dropped after taking time out for exams, she can still make about £100 a week. "It’s reassuring to know I'll always have a back-up option and never be completely stuck without any source of income, especially since I'm almost entirely independent from my parents."
I have been offered upwards of £150 to send people my used shoes.
Other students, like Siobhan, a first-year student at the University of Liverpool, try sugar dating. She first got involved when she tweeted about wanting money and woke up the next day to a direct message from a stranger offering to pay her in exchange for ignoring and insulting him online. "He called himself a 'pay pig', which is like a sugar daddy but without the sexual aspect. Since then I have used both Twitter and Seeking Arrangement to find pay pigs and sugar daddies," she said, adding that she typically gets around £50 a week, plus an extra £5-£10 per photo of her feet or socks.
"I have also been offered upwards of £150 to send people my used shoes, but I love my shoes too much to part with them. The money helps with being able to go on nights out – now I can stay out later and drink more. I have also used the money in emergencies, like when I accidentally lost my keys and had to pay £30 to replace them all."
Katy, 23, a Bournemouth University student, told Refinery29 UK she was surprised at the finding given that she has only heard of one peer who sold sex for money. She said that while she was "all for women and men loving their bodies" and "would never judge anyone" for making money with them, "there are so many other ways to make money while at university.
"University is expensive. You forget that it’s not just rent and fees, it’s the cost of living and bills and going out and it all adds up. I had a part-time job to help me through and have done 15-hour shifts just to make sure I can pay my rent on time, but it’s been done the old-fashioned way."
Yasmin Blackwell, 21, a student at Bournemouth University, told Refinery29 UK that while she wasn't surprised some of her fellow students were selling their bodies, she is "shocked that the number is so high". "Many people at uni complain about being 'poor' but I don't know many who ever outwardly appear to be struggling and you never really wonder how they're affording things."
She described the number of her peers who sell their bodies as "very upsetting" and believes universities should be doing more to ensure students know there is financial aid available. "Although it’s something I’ve never come close to needing to do, I can see why some may feel the need to do it," she added. "There’s so much going on at uni, both socially and the general day-to-day costs that build up very quickly, and for young adults who are new to managing money it can get very overwhelming. Things can escalate very quickly, especially if the student didn’t have family or friends to rely on to help them out."
Sarah Lasoye, the National Union of Students' Women’s Officer, said the cost of living and studying in the UK makes sex work and the rights of sex workers "just as much a student issue as tuition fees or student housing," and that more needs to be done to defend and extend these rights.
The NUS, she continued, "will be working closely with organisations such as the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) and Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM) to advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work, and to oppose further legislation, such as the recent US FOSTA-SESTA style legislation, which would place many student sex workers in considerable danger."
Meanwhile Jake Butler, Save the Student’s money expert, said student sex workers "still face an unfair stigma," despite it being common, "and many may fear repercussions from their university over their choice of work.
"Universities need to continue their efforts to provide support and create spaces in which students feel safe accessing advice, to ensure all students are aware of their rights and can practise their work safely," he continued, adding that it once again raises concerns about the gap between student living costs and the maintenance loan. "It's simply not the case that all parents or students can find that much extra cash."