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Impact of Coronavirus measures on the working student: The nudge that breaks the camel’s back

The measures taken today by the UK government mean that many small businesses will be forced to close and lay off their workers. With people voluntarily staying away from bars, restaurants and clubs, the impact will be profound. The government will be judged by how it supports people most affected and this will be their legacy. Since the majority employ students as part-time workers, it seems they will be hit especially hard. Add to this the loss of part-time work within universities rapidly shutting down many operations, and the effect will be catastrophic for those in most need. Even PhD students robbed of their pay from casual teaching that they rely upon will be affected. TEFS now calls upon universities and government to step in to help those affected. Emergency hardship funds should be urgently deployed. Having to drop out or fail courses because of lack of support is not an option. Loss of funding and rent arrears will be the ‘straws that break the camel’s back’. The measure of a university will be in how they react to support their students most affected. If they fall short, it will be widely reported and those watching will remember who they are. The challenge is there. Rise to meet it.

Today saw a significant ramping up of the measures that the UK government setting out to counteract the spread of the COVID-19 disease (caused through infection by the novel Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, SARS-CoV-2). The Prime minister’s statement on coronavirus and new advice are available from today.

The main plan is to ask UK citizens to comply voluntarily with social distancing measures. They do not appear to be imposed. Indeed, many organisations have already pre-empted government advice and cancelled events and working operations in advance of today. Although the UK government is coming under serious criticism for being slow to introduce measures like other countries, it seems that there will be a general coalescing of actions across all countries in the coming weeks.

However, the UK government is intent on achieving a similar outcome via a different route. Whereas many countries (such as our very near neighbour, Ireland; the only one we share a land border with) have actively closed down events and business such as pubs, restaurants and clubs, the UK is simply telling people to stay away. But the result will no doubt be the same. Businesses will see no trade and close anyway. The government can easily claim it did not impose this. The reason behind this approach is not clear, but if it is an economic strategy to save money, then forgiveness will be in short supply.

Nudge, nudge.

Another theory is that the government has fallen in love with the idea of ‘nudge theory’ as reported in some media outlets (e.g. The Guardian 13th March 2020 ‘Why is the government relying on nudge theory to fight coronavirus?’). The idea is that more subtle suggestions will be more effective than commands and rules. But this is a time of crisis when the attrition rate on the population could exceed that of World War II if the herd immunity aim is realised (See TEFS 13th March 2020 ‘Government warning: "Squashing the sombrero" will damage your health’). People want to see leadership that is decisive and clear in these times.  Just imagine Winston Churchill in June of 1940 replacing,

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender” 

with some ‘nudges’ about how to resist such as,

“The Germans pose a threat to our nation. We aim to minimise the impact of their arrival by asking you to arrange some resistance yourself. The beaches would be a good place to start before considering what action you might want to take back in the hills and other places they might land. Should they start marching down our streets, then you may also wish to block them in some way.”

Focus on helping people first.

The plans to isolate the most vulnerable older people are fine, but they are relying too much upon self-help. This might work in many cases, but equally, it might backfire. For most people, there is a paucity of obvious assistance available and confusion about how to access it.

For those working, there is plenty of medical advice available on the Public Health England and Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy www site for both employers and employees. However, there is only advice about support for businesses and no link for employees. This has to be searched for via the Department for Work and Pensions Coronavirus Support for employees, benefit claimants and businesses.

Nevertheless, the situation for employees is critical. A large number will have to go home with no pay for many months. Many will be forced to return home to take care of children sent home from closed schools. Time will tell if the support measures will be enough. There is a sense that too many people are very vulnerable. It is essential that emergency benefits are released and a moratorium on evictions is imposed on landlords and mortgage lenders. Additional targeted funds are needed to help feed at home the 15.4% of school-age pupils claiming free school meals. This is not a time to ‘nudge’ people, it is a time for decisive action.

The effect on students.

Most universities are closing and offering lectures online to avoid as much person to person contact as possible. The effectiveness of this will be interesting to monitor. Many are also asking their students to go home to study. The charity Stand Alone has pleaded for more support for estranged students that cannot go home. They will have to stay in university accommodation indefinitely, and this cannot be closed if they are to have any place to live. But they are not standing alone in their plight. The majority (64%) of students do not appear to have any job and they rely upon their family for help at this time (see TEFS 27th July 2018 ‘The vast majority - one million - of students have no employment when in full-time studies’). Like all students, they will be most concerned about final examinations and how to prepare. However, remember that this week a sizeable minority are struggling to stay with ‘herd’ as economic pressures close in to pick them off. The problems are not confined to undergraduate students. An excellent article for the Higher Education Policy instute by PhD student, Bethan Cornell, 'What might Covid-19 mean for PhD students & postdocs?' highlights the many problems they also face.

Levelling the pitch for all students.

TEFS has been all about ‘levelling the playing surface’ at universities for all students. The government approach means that onus will be on universities who have been ‘nudged’ into taking action. Whilst protecting the health of students and staff is the current focus, the longer-term impacts on the future of students will emerge very soon. The challenge will be enormous, but the least advantaged students should not be forgotten. Many issues will rear up for them in the next week or so.

If libraries close, those with few of their own resources may lose access to the internet for long periods. For example, along with some other universities, Durham University is delivering all lectures online from Monday. However, they have spotted the clear problem and they are keeping open the library and other facilities to access the internet. Those with family support will go home and study more safely where they are isolated from the virus. Those with fewer resources will stay and access the library on shared computers. It may be their only option to complete critical assignments or view lectures. It is vital that the universities record the lectures so that they can be accessed later. The students doing this will, however, be very vulnerable to getting COVID-19. Such students will also be affected by having to stay near the university to continue with their part-time jobs. Illness or loss of the job will be a disaster and they will need advice and help fast. Importantly, universities should review their policies on the deployment of hardship funds. This will be an urgent requirement to mitigate the effects on many students. A review of several leading university www sites last week did not reveal any evidence of this being actively considered as advice.

Fallout from the budget.

Last week, TEFS looked at the impact of budget plans on universities and students (See TEFS 11th March 2020 ‘The budget first-aid box and a research feeding frenzy’). While there were some things that may help those working part-time, there are other problems that seem to have gone unnoticed. Those working less than about 13 hours per week will not be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay. This will seriously impact many students as the earnings may represent the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’.

Plans to tighten up the tax rules from April may also affect many part-time employed students who work independently or for an agency. Well hidden in the budget is the further rolling out of rule IR35. This is calculated to raise a further £1.3bn a year by 2023-24. It follows a review of changes to the off-payroll working rules (commonly known as IR35) and the taxation rollout will move from the public sector to apply in the private and third sectors from this April. Students working in this way for themselves or for agencies could see their pay decline at the worst time possible. This should have been delayed rather than added to the chaos.

The conclusion is that the government’s tactics are still not fully transparent. Subtle ‘nudges’ to take the action needed ourselves is no substitute for leadership. There is a crisis in full swing and years of austerity have left our services wanting when faced with large numbers of vulnerable people. The situation for students in financial stress is critical now.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. 


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