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Government response to digital poverty, job losses, and student hardship: A £21 million cut to its support

Hiding in the House of Commons proceedings from Monday afternoon was an astounding confirmation of student hardship cuts from the Higher Education Minister, Michelle Donelan. Using a sleight of hand, she announced £256 million was to be offered for student hardship support in the coming year. What she did not say was that it was being diverted from student premium funding and amounted to a CUT in support of £21 million. This indicates her government has become detached from the reality facing students and universities doing their best to support them. The announcement yesterday of new ‘Guidance on Higher education: reopening buildings and campuses’, after universities have their own complex arrangements in place, is a good example. The Department for Education is quoted in the Guardian as saying “no funding would be provided to help meet the guidelines, and that additional costs would need to be met from existing budgets” Of course the overall government grant has been cut. 


Kind observers might say that there was a ’blind spot’. But this idea has worn wafer thin as it evolves to become a clearly wilful act. The minister is aware of the problems emerging and the evidence is mounting fast. Recent reports from the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Office for Students (OfS) confirm widespread and increasing disadvantage amongst our students. With universities unsure of the extent to which part-time jobs affect their students, the impact of the loss of such jobs is likely to be a big surprise (see the results of TEFS Freedom of Information responses reported in the Guardian in June, 'University students who work part-time need support – or they will drop out'). Meanwhile, the response of measured indifference from the government is unlikely to convince anyone that fairness or equality are part of the government's agenda. 

Wilful indifference.

This was fully exposed this week. The serious problems the government encountered, arising from their decision to cancel all public exams in England, started coming home to roost in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon. The news dominated the week for those concerned about students and their education (the proceedings are on ParliamentliveTV and in the Hansard transcript). Not reported in the media was that on Monday the Higher Education Minister, Michelle Donelan, took questions in the house related to her responsibility for Higher Education. Hiding in there was a very important question from Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Labour MP for Slough. He was speaking on behalf of the 55% of students who are facing considerable economic hardship and 80% who are very worried about how they will cope (see the recent NUS Survey from July). The brief encounter is shown here. 

The full proceedings are on Parliament TV and in the Hansard transcript

Mr Dhesi noted that the “the university hardship funds were not designed for such demand” and asked, “What extra provision will the Government make to ensure that universities can properly support students facing hardship?” The first answer rightly confirmed the latest Student Loan Company decision with “If a student is not already accessing the maximum loan and the income of their parents or carers has changed, they should fill in a change of income form”

Government to cut hardship funds in 2020/21. 

However, the answer about hardship funding was astounding with “We have worked with the Office for Students so that they can show more flexibility, and this will amount to £256 million for the coming academic year”. What Donelan did not say was this was a CUT from the funding offered in the 2019/20 academic year. Earlier in the summer, Michelle Donelan replied to an open letter from TEFS that an amount of £23 million per month from existing student premium funding to the end of July with “Providers can use the funding, worth around £23 million per month for April, May, June and July, towards student hardship funds”. However, the total fund for 2019/20 was already £277 million, or just over £23 million per month for “students who may need additional support to achieve successful outcomes”. These funds are intended to be spread over IT, mental health, and other support besides hardship, so nothing new was on offer (see TEFS 26th August 2020 ‘The perfect storm for Universities PART TWO: The COVID-19 ‘time bomb blind-spot’). 


The ‘support’ mentioned this week was in fact in the context of cuts planned for 2020/21, announced on 6th May 2020 by the OfS with ‘Funding for academic years 2019-20 and 2020-21 OfS board decisions and outcomes of consultation’. Cuts across the board include 6.8% stripped from the Student Premium for 2020/21. In response to harsh criticism of this move in the consultation responses, the OfS acknowledged some dissent but did not agree by responding “that cuts to funding, and in particular to student premium funding, would have an adverse impact on providers’ ability to meet the commitments in their access and participation plans. We do not accept this”.



Donelan had simply confirmed the same arrangement, but with a cut in overall funding from £277 million to £256 million. This is now reduced to the equivalent of £21 million per month. Bear in mind it is only allowing universities to divert funds away from other vital activities if they need to. 

With further lock-downs inevitable, it seems the pressure on students, jobs and families will intensify (see TEFS 26rh August 2020 ‘The perfect storm for Universities PART TWO: The COVID-19 ‘time bomb blind-spot’). Assuming most students manage to get access to warm accommodation and food, the next biggest challenge for many will be IT and internet access for nearly all their learning. 

NUS survey of students confirms a major problem is on the way. 

On Tuesday the NUS released the findings from its ‘Coronavirus and Students Survey Phase II’. The data was gathered in July and sets the scene for the start of the new academic year. There were 4,178 responses to a comprehensive range of questions. Comparisons are made to similar questions asked back in March and the results must surely set off alarm bells for those managing student support across the whole of the UK. The general conclusion is that most “Students are close to the brink financially” and “Three in five students say that Coronavirus has had some degree of impact upon their income - with one in five reporting a major impact". Debt was already accumulating, and the usual fallback of family and jobs was less certain; 54% said that the income of someone who helps support them financially been impacted by Covid-19; 62% saw an impact on their own income; 73% were concerned about their ability to manage financially; 77% were concerned about this beyond the pandemic.
Figure 1 shows where assistance was being sought to continue during the current crisis. The hardship funds are the last resort and have yet to see the full impact. 

The digital poverty chasm. 

There is now little doubt that nearly all teaching will proceed online in the coming term. This has brought with it the idea of ‘digital poverty’ that entered the student lexicon in March of this year. But this problem has been with us for a long time. Many students have endured poor access to online learning for at least 10 years or more. This gradually became a greater problem as reliance on online access for assignments and studies increased over time. This was not so noticeable when universities were fully open and university managements tended to turn a blind eye to unequal access. But it is the reason students press for library facilities to remain open 24/7 where they could get a clear run at their studies, often after working evening shifts. It does not cost extra, and they can endure cheaper accommodation without affecting their progress. But the COVID-19 lockdown put an end to this access and the disadvantage gap became a gaping chasm. This gap is unlikely to close in the coming year as further lockdowns gather pace. 

The NUS survey also highlighted the extent to which internet access was becoming a lifeline for most students who will use it to stay in touch with family and friends. But very few think their university has given much help with only 11% confirming “I have received helpful support from my institution”. This does not look good. 

A more focused Office for Students survey report on 3rd September 2020 ‘Digital poverty’ risks leaving students behind’ backs up the NUS conclusions with very alarming observations. From the 1,416 students surveyed, 71% reported lack of access to a quiet study space; 56% said they lacked access to appropriate online course materials; and 18% were impacted by lack of access to a computer, laptop, or tablet. Add to this confusion the need to pay for off-campus access to our stretched internet infrastructure and the pressure mounts further. 

World leading infrastructure in the UK? 

The notion of the UK being ‘world leading’ in nearly every activity has been promoted by the government at every stage of the COVID-19 crisis. But on digital access and technology there is an eerie silence. I am writing this post on a Friday morning in Edinburgh at a desk computer that is attached to a fibre broadband internet connection billed as up to 100 Mbps bandwidth. A quick test and I see that it is operating at 5.6 Mbps download now. It sometimes exceeds 100 Mbps in the evenings but mostly it is slow during the day. This is probably the experience of most people using the best available. Anything less would make online learning very difficult and intermittent. My experience of online meetings has been one of dropped connections on occasions. Bearing in mind I am offering some video lectures and online teaching to help former colleagues next term; I am worried about the capability at my end. I am also aware that the cost of getting the ‘best’ will press many students’ finances, and even then, the creaking infrastructure might let them down. 

This is because the UK is falling behind many comparable nations. With demands on the communication systems already putting it under pressure, the move to almost total online teaching will add to the problem as term starts. 

The latest report from Ofcom, ‘Connected Nations 2019UK report’, shows that progress is being made and paints a rosy picture of the potential for access to faster and more reliable connections. However, the current reality is what concerns students.
Figure 2 is taken from the latest OECD report (OECD Broadband Portal 2020) from December 2019 and shows where the UK lies in the international league table. The reliance on slower copper wire DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) connections, that get slower when further from the exchange, is evident. This shows up in a comparison of average broadband speed capability across Western European countries shown in Figure 3 plotted from Cable UK data in ‘Worldwide broadband speed league 2020’.
Many Baltic and Eastern European countries fare better. This confirms what was observed in 2016 in the ISP Review 2016 ‘The Top 43 Fastest UK Universities for Broadband Speeds Ranked’. The UK government cannot afford to be complacent. 

The reality for students. 

This is evident in many posts at The Student Room that show bandwidth can be excellent on campus but highly variable in student accommodation depending on cost. Their ‘Student broadband’ advice is that several students sharing one slow DSL link at the same time in a house is just not going to hack it. Students off campus may find that the UK’s mobile coverage at 4G is a better option and many rely on it to access the internet. But subscription costs for unlimited data downloads can be high for hard pressed students and these additional costs should not borne by students when they are paying  full fees and then excluded from campus access. Hardship funding in universities should always offer laptops with wireless mobile dongles and a subscription attached. Although slower and more expensive, they may be the only option for a reliable link in most off campus, low cost student housing. 

What the government is doing. 

In March 2019, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reviewed the situation in ‘Exploring the UK’s digital divide’. It explained the ongoing efforts of the government. and concluded that “Decent broadband coverage is improving but more remains to be done” In 2018, the UK Government introduced legislation for a Broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO). This is not particularly ambitious but gives homes and businesses the right to request a “decent broadband service of at least 10 Mbit/s download speed and 1 Mbit/s upload speed”. It came into force in March 2020 and Ofcom is only implementing this now. Around 610,000 homes and businesses are still unable to receive a decent broadband service. Although the idea is that the communications industry will pay the added costs, there is the usual ‘market sting in the tail’ with “Ofcom expects that industry may pass at least some of the costs of the broadband USO onto consumers through retail price increases”. 

The general conclusion is that most universities are only now waking up to the impact of COVID-19 on student finances and the loss of student jobs. In June, TEFS reported in the Guardian ('University students who work part-time need support – or they will drop out') the results of Freedom of Information responses from eighty universities around the UK asked about student working hours and help available. It highlighted an almost complete lack of knowledge about the number of hours students divert to paid employment in term time (see details in TEFS 5th June 2020 ‘Blind spot about student finances cruelly exposed by COVID-19 crisis’). 

There is now doubt that this will raise its head right at the start of term when students struggle with the costs of access to online courses and call for more help. If the response falls short, then progress for many able students will stall through no fault of their own. So much for equality and social mobility.

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.


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