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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.
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.
“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 .
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.
 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 https://www.upp-ltd.com/. 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.
 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.
UPDATE 8th August 2020 Things are moving fast today with severe criticism mounting about Ofqual and SQA, and urgent action is needed. TEFS has laid out ten points that should be considered to reverse out of the crumbling mess. Fairness should replace 'maintaining standards' as the primary objective. The government must cease trying to defend a system that acts as a barrier to the less advantaged. Since posting yesterday, things have been moving fast. Today the Guardian put the examinations issue in large print on its front page with ‘Nearly 40% of A-level result predictions to be downgraded in England’ . This conclusion came about after some great detective work by former medical statistician, Huy Duong, who analysed the data available and reconciled this with the Ofqual announcement that there could have been a 12% inflation in higher grades. It seems that Ofqual have been caught red handed and "Duong’s findings were privately confirmed to the Guardian by ex
This week confirmed beyond any doubt that Ofqual is pointing the finger of blame for the public examinations chaos this summer firmly at the government and its ministers. The positions of Schools Minister, Nick Gibb and Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson must be on the line. When Williamson is confronted by the Education Committee next week, like Momus he may find his mask has slipped and cannot lay blame anywhere else. He might be meeting his Nemesis and find he is expelled from his lofty position. Called to account. On Wednesday morning, Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, Education Permanent Secretary, Susan Acland-Hood, and Director for Qualifications, Michelle Dyson, will be called to account by the Education Committee. With the redoubtable Robert Halfon in the chair, they will face a hard time. This is because Halfon and his colleagues will be armed with more documentary evidence from Ofqual and others that look bad for both ministers. All of the correspo
UPDATE: Augar Speaks out Today, Friday 8th May 2020, Philip Augar broke cover and commented on the financial crisis in our universities in the Financial Times. With ' The time is ripe to reform UK university finance' he acknowledged that "Covid-19-related disruption may now mean that such a fee cut would be too destabilising" . He is looking to a new post-COVID-19 world and he must be listened to. The likelihood of the government's response to his report last year diverging far from its recommendations looms. Augar has offered alternative options for funding Universities in his article for the Financial Times today (8th May 2020). His input is welcome at this time and the government should be bringing him into the fold again. TEFS has argued for a comprehensive review of university finances that goes well beyond simply looking at students and fees with: "Therefore, a working group involving students (such as NUS), staff (such as UCU) universi