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Mind the Gap: University students under increasing financial pressure.

Two stories this week served to highlight the financial plight of many of our students. They also illustrate the extent to which a ‘two tier’ education system is now operating. There is a growing gap between those that have financial support and the rest that must struggle one way or another; with more now turning to the sex industry for funds. This is further exacerbated by a failure of the institutions to recognise there is a problem and a government that increasingly fails to take any responsibility. This leaves the ‘fourth estate’ of the media to warn us of the gap.

More students turning to sex work. 

This is not really a new story and prostitution is surely as old as the hills. But its increased prevalence amongst students is causing some institutional blushes. The availability of various apps and so called ‘sugar daddy’ web sites makes it more accessible whilst still within the bounds of the current law. It is worth noting that paying for sex is not in itself a criminal offence in most of the UK (Northern Ireland made paying for sex an offence in 2015). However, soliciting, kerb crawling and ‘pimping’ are offences. When I was a student back in the early 1970s I was aware of some such activity. One fellow student was working as a ‘pimp’ at weekends in central London. Another student was a ‘page three’ girl on several occasions. She told me that the pay was “too good to turn down”. I was also under great financial stress but indicated that I had no such dilemma as I was not in a position to choose. Nevertheless, the moral dilemma that she faced was something I would never wish to judge. Those who do seek to judge should first look at the circumstances.

The main thesis of the Independent’s report was that universities are ‘turning a blind eye’ to the perceived ‘problem’ of students as sex workers. Certainly it seems that most institutions would like the ‘problem’ to go away. They are much less likely to understand the problems if most of their students are from comfortably well off families and most staff are likewise. 

The report leans heavily on an earlier article from July 2018 ‘More than 10% of students 'use their bodies' to pay for university fees when facing emergency costs, study claims’ and a survey of 3,167 students in the UK by ‘Save the Student: Student Money Survey 2018 – Results’. This revealed that 78% are struggling to get by. As many as 76% have are in part-time employment with 4% turning to sex work. One is quoted as defending web cam sex work with "I have very few uni contact hours, so it's easy to fit around my studies”. This is one embarrassing aspect of the situation that most institutions would prefer was not aired in the media. In fact, they simply try to turn a blind eye to all extracurricular employment or other money spinning activities of their students as a way to duck the issue of a decreasing academic workload for their students. 

Commuter students missing out.

The plight of students who have to commute to their university to study was well laid out in a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) earlier in December. They have followed this up, last week and then this week, with a series of fascinating case studies that fill in more detail. The gap between those with family resources and those without is stark.

‘Homeward Bound: Defining, understanding and aiding ‘commuter students’ by David Maguire and David Morris. HEPI Report 114’ [1] identifies arrange of obstacles that commuting puts in the way of students and is a valuable overview of the situation. However, it is yet another case of a ‘compartmentalised’ study in that it looks largely in isolation at one main factor. The reality for many students is that they commute and have part-time employment and/or caring responsibilities on top of that. Nevertheless, there is some concession to this compounding effect with; 

“Evidence suggests that commuter students are more likely to: work part-time; have family or carer responsibilities; be the first generation in their family to attend higher education; be from a lower socio-economic group”

Yet the conclusion is also somewhat defeatist.

“Unfortunately, it is not always possible to untangle the impact of each of these characteristics from the significance of a commute.”

Of course it is possible to disaggregate the various compounding pressures on students if there is actually a will to seek the information. TEFS has argued for some time that determining the amount of time students have to devote to their studies should be determined in every case. This should not be hidden and left to a few individual tutors or hard pressed student support staff trying to help distressed students in their offices. It requires more radical and comprehensive actions. 

The later statement, “The mixed evidence from the HEPI / Advance HE Survey and National Student Survey suggests that more work needs to be done to disentangle the various factors that might impact” is glaringly obvious and this has been that case for far too many years [2]. 

Will universities take up this challenge with a comprehensive survey of all students? Or will it take political will and action by the Office for Students? 
One thing is certain. If the inherent unfairness of a widening gap in a two tier higher education system is not addressed, then more embarrassing stories will emerge in 2019. 

[1] TEFS notes that the HEPI report was sponsored by University Partnerships Programme (UPP) that is a leading private provider of on campus student accommodation. It is well worth looking at what they provide The motivation behind the report would be a commercial one in extolling the virtues of staying on campus and not commuting. However, with HEPI quite rightly retaining editorial control, it seems this aim might have somewhat backfired.

[2] TEFS notes that the OECD states that anything up top 30 hours per week is classed as part-time working. Some students exceed this and many more have to add travel time that detracts from studying. In 2017, the part-time employment rate in the UK was 23.5% of employment.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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