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Blind spot about student finances cruelly exposed by COVID-19 crisis

A chasm in understanding the financial situation many students endure has been cruelly exposed by the COVID-9 lockdown crisis. The results of a freedom of information request by TEFS confirms the worst. Most universities have little or no knowledge of how many of their full-time undergraduate students are working part-time during the term. As a result, they also have no idea about the extent of hours diverted from studies and how it affects attainment by this group of students. The dramatic loss of jobs will expand this problem very fast and destroy any notion of 'widening access' as students calculate the impact on their progress this summer. It is time for a shift of emphasis from research and fees to supporting students. A 'Task Force on Student Support' is needed urgently.

The abrupt shut-down of the economy from late March suddenly exposed the precarious existence of students who relied on the extra income. Students in low paid jobs were hit very hard. This ‘inequality’ in access to higher education has remained hidden across our institutions despite being the biggest unseen ‘elephant in the room’. Universities are reacting to many more pleas for hardship funding and help without knowing the true depth of the problem. But thankfully most universities reacted quickly to plug the gaps they saw emerging. A dangerous blind spot has been discovered and they are preparing for more students seeking hardship help in the coming academic year. This could become a torrent as jobs are slow to return and many families find themselves stricken by unemployment. Fortunately, there are numerous good practices emerging across the sector, but they are ad hoc without a clear strategy evident from either the Government or agencies such as the Office for Students (OfS). If not resolved fast, there will be a massive hit to widening access and equality this summer. The small gains made over the past few years will dissolve and only students with family capital behind them will be able to take advantage. 

Freedom of information. 

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request was made to every Higher Education institution in the UK at the end of April. Several simple questions were asked about their knowledge of their students’ part-time job commitments and what was happening in student support because of the COVID-19 crisis. The headline results are simply that most have little or no information about their students in this respect and there has been a rise in demand for their hardship funds. This will not be a surprise for most observers. However, the simple fact is that most universities have no idea how many students are employed in part-time work in term time and how many hours are involved. The crisis has very sharply reminded them of the situation as most have seen a rise in cries for help from their hardship funds. It is to their credit that they all have reacted quickly and concern for students and their welfare is now a very high priority. 

TEFS is very grateful and thanks the many universities that took the time to respond to the request for information in full and in a very timely manner. By the 20-day FOI deadline this week, 80 universities had responded. Indeed, many responded within a few days despite an initial automated response that there might be delays due to the COVID-19 crisis. Most responses were completed in full, with nearly all offering a lot of additional information. Only one gave a minimal response that did not answer the main questions. They spanned the whole of the UK with sixty-five from England, five from wales and one from Northern Ireland. In Scotland, there is an extended limit of 60 days to answer FOI requests, yet there were nine responses within 20 days from here also. Breaking the replies down to University grouping, 20 were from the Russell Group, 22 from the Pre-92 group and 38 from the combined Post-92 group of institutions. 
A summary of the results from two of the main questions is presented in Table 1 above. It relates to full-time undergraduate students in the academic year 2019/20 and covers all term-time work including evenings and weekends. It reveals that most universities do not know the extent of part-time working or its effects on attainment. Some have a limited amount of data from surveys that might not be fully representative or from students that the university itself employs on a part-time basis. These are designated YES* and explained clearly by the institutions involved as monitoring the hours worked by those that they employ on campus. The vast majority simply replied NO. The consequences for fairness and the impact on widening access will no longer remain hidden as the numbers of students seeking help swells to a dangerous wave. Without basic data on their students, the size of the wave rising over the horizon can only be guessed at. 

Cause and effect. 

The rise in demand put upon hardship funds (they all have one) by COVID-19 affected sixty-nine of the universities. Those that indicated they were not affected appeared to have considerable commitments to this already and these simply continued. The reasons for the rise in demand are surely expected and due to two simple causes. Many UK students have lost their part-time jobs, their family support may be is affected by unemployment at home or they are estranged from family. Also, international students have been stranded and lack support from family or income from a job locally. It all brings the importance of income from employment sharply into focus. It can no longer be hidden or ignored. TEFS has previously looked at the impact of unemployment on access to university (TEFS 16th March 2020 ‘Impact of Coronavirus measures on the working student: The nudge that breaks the camel’s back’) and the outlook is not a good one. 

Should universities be surprised. 

There have been surveys around for some time that indicate the extent of part-time work undertaken by students in term time. The Advance HE ‘UK Engagement Survey’(UKES) has been active since 2015. The 2019 report covered 29,784 students from 31 HE institutions (some of the FOI respondents indicated that they were involved in the UKES but were awaiting the 2020 survey results). The proportion of students who indicated that they spent time working for pay increased from 43% in 2015 to 53% in 2019. However, the report does not indicate the distribution of hours in employment. Thus, without more comprehensive reporting, it is likely that the true extent of term-time working is underestimated. 

TEFS highlighted some of the evidence last year with a series of postings (see Note* below for a list of related articles). The data used was based upon two lines of evidence. Firstly, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) produces monthly and quarterly reports of employment numbers across the UK. These include the numbers of students aged between 18 and 24 in full-time education who are ‘economically inactive’, in work, or seeking work. The economically inactive students are in the majority and this reflects those that do not have jobs that interfere with their studies. However, their numbers fluctuate up and down to indicate those who gain employment over the summer months. This conclusion is reinforced by the analysis of the results of the Advance HE/ Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) student academic experience surveys conducted since 2012. The survey involves many students each year (14,072 in 2019) and covers a very wide range of questions. They show that around 64% report that they have no paid employment. In contrast, 16% report that they are working up to 9 hours per week and 20% over 10 hours per week. In drilling down further into the data, TEFS has revealed the distribution of hours worked in greater detail. The overall lesson is that a substantial number of students divert time from their studies across most types of institution. Many are employed for well over 20 hours per week. One more alarming observation is that those who commute to their university are more likely to have much longer hours in term-time jobs, adding this burden to their travel time. 

Limits to the numbers of hours worked and attainment. 

The FOI revealed that only two universities have current data on the impact of hours worked on attainment. Yet most universities accept that attainment and hours diverted to part-time employment are linked. Some offer work experience associated with the degree course and some offer ‘internships’ that clearly enhance experience. This is to be applauded. However, most jobs are unrelated to studies. There is a general acceptance that some part-time work during term time could be beneficial as long as it is not for too many hours There is also a general assumption that working for over ten hours per week can have a detrimental effect on studies. This boundary is quoted in some surveys but there is very little concrete evidence to substantiate its use. For example, the Advance HE/ HEPI Student Academic Experience Survey of 2017 states that “The same new Survey question shows that students who undertake employment for ten or more hours a week are less likely to feel they are learning ‘a lot’. This confirms that undertaking paid employment for more than a few hours a week can be detrimental to academic work, including – potentially – the class of degree obtained.” However, the wide distribution of hours worked per week noted by TEFS is not revealed in these reports. 
But it has been known for some time that diverting time away from studying has a negative effect. In 2005 a survey of 1,500 students across seven UK universities for Universities UK and HEFCE by the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information (CHERI) and London South Bank University (‘Survey of higher education students’ attitudes to debt and term-time working and their impact on attainment’) concluded that “For a student working 16 hours a week the odds of getting a good degree (i.e. 2(i) and above) to not getting a good degree are about 60% of the odds for a similar non-working student”. A similar study three years later ‘The impact of term‐time employment on higher education students’ academic attainment and achievement’ in the Journal of Education Policy (Volume 23, 2008 - Issue 4) by Claire Callender of University College London, Institute of Education “Just engaging in term-time employment is likely to depress students’ degree results.”

The maximum ten hour recommendation seems to originate from the Cubie Review ‘Finance ‘Fairness for the Future’, the Independent Committee of Inquiry into Student Finance’ (see Note2** below) that made recommendations for the fee structure in Scotland back in 1999. This is not available online but is cited in a later report ‘Student financial support in Scotland: independent review’ in 2017. There are also several academic studies that reinforce the idea that term-time work can affect attainment and outcomes for students. One often cited example from 2008 is ‘The impact of term‐time employment on higher education students’ academic attainment and achievement’ (Journal of Education Policy Volume 23, 2008 - Issue 4) by Claire Callender. Another, ‘How does Term-time Paid Work Affect Higher Education Students’ Studies, and What can be Done to Minimise any Negative Effects?’ (The Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice Vol 3| Issue 2(2015) | pp. 3–14) from 2015 by Iain McGregor of Edinburgh Napier University reinforces this conclusion and provides a useful overview of similar studies. 

In recognition of the detrimental effects on students and their studies, most universities recommend a maximum number of hours per week in employment. However, it is strange that this can range from 10 hours to 20 hours. Many are around a 15 to 16 hours limit. Those recommending 20 hours as a limit cite the stipulation that international students on Tier 4 visas are restricted to 20 hours in any case. But the survey data noted above paints a picture of students working many more hours than recommended. 

Best practice suggestions. 

The responses to TEFS were largely detailed and the combined comments run to over 20 pages of closely spaced text. TEFS will report these more fully later. They reveal a wide range of actions taken since the lockdown. The vast majority released their students from accommodation charges for its own accommodation if they had returned home. Some also suspended or reduced rent for those remaining on campus. Estranged students with no family support appear to have been recognised and supported in many cases. Apart from a few who had arrangements already in place, all offered more IT help for internet access and computer/laptop support. One did not increase the provision of laptops due to supply problems but instead offered considerable other financial help to balance this. In addition to these actions, several other notable best practices emerged. 
  • Increasing hardship funds and fast-tracking applications alongside emergency cash payments. 
  • Help with the repatriation of international students or finding alternative accommodation. 
  • Furloughing students they employ and /or ensuring income over the summer. This was sometimes accompanied by contacting local employers of students with advice on achieving this. 
  • More worrying was the need to deploy food packages, food banks and food vouchers. 
Actions taken by Government. 

It is clear that very little has been done by the government to support students at this time. It seems the blind spot also extends to those in power. The UK government ‘Support Package for Higher Education Providers and Students’ is a mirage that promises much but delivers nothing extra, “We have also worked with the OfS to enable providers to draw upon existing funding to increase hardship funds and support disadvantaged students impacted by COVID-19. As a result, providers will be able to use the funding, totalling £46m across April and May, towards student hardship funds and mental health support, as well as to support providers’ access and participation plans”. This is not new funding and diverts a valuable resource from improving widening access for disadvantaged students. The amount spread over all institutions will not go very far. A further small amount has been promised to cover June and July, but again it will not be enough. In contrast, the Scottish Government recognised that extra would be needed and offered additional targeted support with ‘Extra hardship payments for students’ that comes to “a £5 million package of emergency financial support”. 

Platitudes and crocodile tears. 

It is no longer acceptable for the Government or the OfS to pretend that the problem of student employment does not exist. There may have been a blind spot lying undetected in the past – but they now know that this exists. The COVID-19 crisis revealed it well enough. Allowing universities to divert their access funding to help students in need is a feeble response that will only serve to store up more problems soon. The government tactic of shifting responsibility down to individual hard-pressed universities is evident in their advice to students, ‘University students and COVID-19 FAQ’  "If you are suffering particular hardship, many universities will already have hardship funds to support students most in need and you should contact your institution.” 

This is not good enough and TEFS has called upon the Government to shift its attention from the ‘University Research Sustainability Taskforce’ and advanced payment of fees to set up a ‘Taskforce for student support’. The National Union of Students set out the case well with its ‘Student Safety Net’ campaign. Their ‘Covid-19 and Students Survey Report seeks the setting up of a “National Hardship Fund for all current students”. This is the best sustainable solution. It means support for students in attending university and channelling funds to all universities through this route.

The FOI response serves to tell us that there is probably not a single university in the UK unaffected. They are beginning to see the extent of the problem and worry about how they can pay for it. A shift of attention by the Government towards student support as the main priority is probably the only way forward. This should be accompanied by clear guidance about how resources should be deployed. It should be mindful of the sharp rise in unemployment generally and the drop in family income. A failure to do this will see many students deferring their studies or dropping out on financial grounds. Universities cannot be expected to carry the burden in an ad hoc manner.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University

*NOTE 1: Earlier TEFS reports on student employment patterns 

**NOTE 2: Cubie Review (Student Finance ‘Fairness for the Future’, the Independent Committee of Inquiry into Student Finance’, 1999). Cited in ‘Student financial support in Scotland: independent review’ 2017. “Why 10 hours of work? We believe it is fair to assume that the Minimum Student Income can still be augmented by employment or other sources. In order to protect the interests of students and to support them to study effectively, the Review supports the recommendations from the Cubie Review – which advised that employment for students should be for no more than ten hours a week during term time (Student Finance ‘Fairness for the Future’, the Independent Committee of Inquiry into Student Finance)”.


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