In this article

The hidden cost of university

Aqua explores which UK cities are the most affordable for university students.
Group of smiling men, women, young adults, and students walking together in an educational setting.
Published on July 27th, 2023
Last reviewed on September 29th, 2023
9 mins read

News and insights

Whether you’re a new undergraduate or a seasoned postgraduate, university can be a financially challenging time for everyone. From brand new textbooks, to the price of your favourite beer, there are a lot of hidden costs that come with the student experience.

We’ve conducted research to reveal which cities in the UK are the most affordable for both undergraduate and postgraduate students. Our study looked at some of the most populated cities across the UK, taking into account various cost factors such as rent, transport costs, and nightlife as well as the cost of childcare for those who are balancing their studies with family life.

To better prepare new students for university, our experts have also put together some top tips for how best to budget and save while studying.

The most affordable university cities for undergraduates

While university fees remain a standard rate for all undergraduate students, at £9,250 a year in England and Scotland, and £9,000 a year in Wales, the cost of living in each city differs hugely, which could be a deciding factor in where students choose to study.

Our research has revealed that Hull is the most affordable city for undergraduates, home to 11,930 undergraduate students. The average price of a one bed in a house share in Hull is just £275 per month, and the city also boasts relatively low average monthly transport costs of £56.26. Students who are contemplating a move to the northern city might also be swayed by the knowledge that Hull is home to the cheapest pint, with beers costing an average of just £3.

Coming in second for affordability is Sunderland, with 12,580 students currently enrolled at the University of Sunderland. Although average rent is a little pricier at £400 per month for one bed in a house share, the city does offer the cheapest transport of all cities analysed, with average monthly costs at £30. For those wanting to socialise without breaking the bank, the cost of going out is also relatively cheap at £31.50 per week. Though this will vary from person to person, our research takes into account the nation’s average pint consumption which is around 9 pints per week.

Matching Sunderland to the penny for the weekly cost of going out is Coventry, which comes in third on the list of most affordable university cities. Rent in the city is also just £322.22 on average per month, and monthly transport will cost students around £50. Undergraduates heading off to the University of Coventry will be in good company too, as the university boasts a staggering 31,645 undergraduate students – the second highest number of any university across the UK.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, London has been revealed as the least affordable city for undergraduate students. The cost of one bedroom in a house share will set students back a substantial £1,260.28 on average, while monthly transport costs are over double that of almost all other cities analysed at £160. Those looking for cheap nights out may also be disappointed, with the average cost of going out for drinks coming in at £54 per week.

With expensive rents, transport, and pints, Edinburgh and Manchester have come in second and third on the list of least affordable universities for undergraduates.

The most affordable university cities for postgraduates

While some undergrads may be prioritising a cheap night out over anything else, the university experience of postgraduate and mature students might look a little different. Our research also looked into the cost of renting outside the city centres and also factored in childcare costs. So whether you’re studying solo or with a family in tow, we’ve uncovered the best cities for postgraduate life. It’s also important to note that postgraduates can expect to pay a standard course fee of £11,000 per year - which is between £1,750 and £2,000 more expensive than undergraduates - no matter where they choose to study across the UK.

Taking the top spot for most affordable city for postgraduate students is Sunderland. For those heading back to university with a family, both the average cost of a three-bed apartment outside of the city centre and childcare costs are £700 per month. However, if you’re simply looking for a one bed outside the city centre, the rank comes out the same, making Sunderland your best option.

In second place is Stoke-on-Trent, which also offers childcare costs of £700, while rent on a family home is just slightly higher at £723.33. Hull comes in third and boasts the cheapest rent of all cities analysed, with prices around £565 a month for a three-bed apartment and £404.29 for a one-bed. Monthly childcare will set parents back a little more in Hull than in other cities though, as fees come in at around £906.67.

As with undergraduates, London has also been revealed as the least affordable city for postgraduates, especially for those students who have families. Average rent for a three-bed apartment outside of the city centre will set you back a sizeable £2,451.37, while childcare costs are also incredibly high at £1,573.83 per month.

Rounding off the bottom three are Bristol and Reading. Average rent for a three-bed in either city will cost students over £1,400 and childcare in each city is around £1,200. Rent for a one-bed is equally steep, averaging £895.83 for Bristol and £874.52 for Reading.

How to successfully budget for university

Sharvan Selvam, Commercial Director for Aqua says, “While the cost of university can feel a little overwhelming, the experience can be worth it in the long run as you work towards gaining a degree and preparing for your future.

“Every student will have different financial commitments, but having a solid financial plan in place is a good starting point. No matter your situation, it’s important to manage your finances throughout your time at university, to help ease any money worries and allow you to focus on your studies so you can get the most out of your university experience.”

Top tips for budgeting while at university

1. Have a clear overview of your income stream

Before setting yourself a budget, you need to have a good idea of how much money you have available. Make sure you know exactly how money you can expect to receive from your student loan, and factor in any extra income you may be receiving from other streams such as a part-time job, bursaries, or family support.

These funds could come in monthly, by term, or as one-off bulk payments so ensure you’ve worked out how many months you need this money to stretch across. When you’re not used to a large sum of money landing in your bank account, it may be tempting to start spending. However tempting it may be, it’s important to make sure you budget and ensure you have enough to cover your most important expenses, such as rent, travel and food, until you expect to receive your next payment.

2. Track your monthly spending

Having a view over what you’re spending each month is key to knowing exactly how much you need to budget for. Bank statements and banking apps can be useful to tell you how much you’ve spent, and using a budget planner to input income and outgoings can be a very helpful way to organise your finances. They can help you figure out exactly how much money you will have left over once you’ve paid for the essentials.

3. Set weekly allowances

Setting an allowance for some of your more non-essential outgoings can really help you to avoid overspending. Give yourself a strict budget and try to stick to it each week. It might mean saying no to the odd night out or suggesting cheaper options to your friends, but it will help you better manage your money from month to month.

Be more conscious of your spending and, if needed, cut your non-essential purchases until you have more flexible income available. Making simple swaps can also help, so perhaps try cooking more at home to avoid paying for meals out, or save money on your morning coffee by replacing the Starbucks by brewing your own.

4. Take advantage of student discounts

One of the many benefits of being a student is the amount of discounts you are eligible for. There are lots of dedicated student discount websites, such as Unidays and Student Beans, that give you discount codes on clothes, restaurants, and technology, and lots of shops and restaurants across university cities offer money off if you can show a student ID card.

5. Look into grants and bursaries

Alongside your student loan, you might be eligible for government grants and bursaries if you need a little extra support. For those students with children, you may be able to get financial support to help with things like family accommodation, childcare costs, and fees associated with your course, and, unlike the student loan, these don’t need paying back.

There are lots of different types of funding available, and they can really make a difference to your student budget, so it can be worth taking the time to research to see if you’re eligible.

6. Consider getting a credit card for emergencies

While getting a credit card might seem daunting, it can be a very helpful back-up if you find yourself landed with an unexpected bill, or if there’s a delay with your student loan.

It’s also a good opportunity to start building your credit history, so you can take bigger financial steps once you’ve graduated. Just make sure that you stay well below your credit limit and set up a regular direct debit to ensure you never miss a payment.

Sources & Methodology

Based on a seed list of the 20 most populated university cities in the UK, the research analysed the different costs associated with going to university as both an undergraduate and postgraduate. Metrics and sources include:

  • Cost of undergraduate course - UCAS
  • Cost of postgraduate course - UCAS
  • Cost of course materials - My Port
  • Average cost of three-bed apartment in city centre - Numbeo
  • Average cost of one bedroom in a house share - Numbeo - the average cost of one bed in house share is calculated by dividing the total cost of a three-bed apartment by three
  • Average cost of three-bed apartment outside city centre - Numbeo
  • Average monthly transport cost - Numbeo
  • Average cost of a pint - Numbeo
  • Average cost of going out per week - - The average cost of a night out is based on the average number of units consumed per week (17.5). Going by this data from the NHS, a pint of lager is 2 units. The research took the average units per week of 17.5 units and divided this by 2 (1 pint = 2 units), that comes to 8.75 pints per week, which for ease has been rounded up to 9 pints per week.
  • Average cost of child care - Numbeo - monthly figure based on a full day at a private preschool or kindergarten

Failure to make payments on time or to stay within your credit limit means that you will pay additional charges and may make obtaining credit in the future more expensive and difficult.

You might also like

Slide 1 of 3
Group of smiling women and men friends cheerfully enjoying coffees at a café

The Social Tax: UK adults overspend by £800 d...

Over a quarter of those surveyed said they overspend due to the fear of missing out.

Published on April 14th, 20225 mins read
Cheerful young adult woman with headphones around neck holding laptop under arm, enjoying the outdoors lifestyle.

Top credit-building tips for graduates

Get off to the right start in life with these credit building tips for graduates.

Published on June 13th, 20229 mins read
Adult man smiling while casually dressed sat on sofa looking at smart phone.

Finance tips for students

Get money smart and learn simple steps you can take to build your financial future, even whilst still at school.

Published on September 27th, 20226 mins read

The smart way to build better credit

Aqua is the credit card that gives you the power to improve your credit score

34.9% APR

Representative (variable) for Aqua Classic

Check my eligibilityRead summary box

Failure to make payments on time or to stay within your credit limit means that you will pay additional charges and may make obtaining credit in the future more expensive and difficult.