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The state of UK universities in lockdown

The deteriorating situation in UK universities took a turn for the worse this week as concerns about finances and student welfare escalated. Things came to a head in Manchester yesterday with sizeable protests breaking out about ‘security fencing’ erected around the university halls of residence. With students across the UK seeking to get off campus to go home, it seems there is little appetite for looking at the numbers of those dropping out. For universities, escalating costs are unlikely to be matched by income if students abandon their accommodation and withdraw from Student Loan Company fees. Those students with the least advantages will, as usual, be the ones caught out in the cold. Now is the time for facing the data and its consequences, not for hiding from the raw facts. 

The news yesterday that the University of Manchester had suddenly erected security fences around its halls of residence came as a surprise. The aim appeared to be to lock in students to prevent them from leaving the area. An alternative explanation might have been to protect them from irate locals as the coronavirus spreads. But this idea initially eluded both students and media alike. The BBC reported ‘Manchester university students tear down campus fencing’. One can only guess at what was going on in the minds of the university management who are obviously detached from the reality experienced by students and staff. Some might see their move as a cynical attempt protect their income by preventing students from moving away and seeking to suspend their studies or dropping out. If this was the motivation, then it will only have accelerated the worsening situation. 

Late yesterday, and far too late, a ‘Statement and apology from the President and Vice-Chancellor’ revealed that the fences were to be removed today and that “The fencing was intended as a response to a number of concerns received over recent weeks from staff and students on this site about safety and security; particularly about access by people who are not residents. There was never any intent to prevent students from entering or exiting the site”. That is probably a ‘reasonable’ explanation, but the way it was handled, and the intense level of distrust, means that it is no longer believed. This is simply because it happened on the same day as an England-wide lockdown and is unlikely to be a coincidence. It seems that the senior management at Manchester University are storing up a lot of trouble for themselves. Trust is the fundamental foundation of the relationship with students. Losing it will be hard to regain. The simpler solution would have been to increase security patrols and support students, not fence them in. 

Are students staying the course? 

This is a difficult question to answer. With the collapse of the examination system late in the summer, a record number of students were accepted onto university courses. With unemployment rising, it seems many felt that had little choice but to proceed to university (See TEFS 26th June 2020 ‘Students accept offers they cannot refuse’). TEFS had earlier warned that many students with the least advantages would find their finances stretched to breaking point if they could not find part-time work during the term. (The Guardian 16th June 2020 ‘University students who work part-time need support – or they will drop out’). With TEFS calling for more help and a ‘Task Force’ focused on student support, the government responded by cutting its support for student hardship (see TEFS 11th September 2020 ‘Government response to digital poverty, job losses, and student hardship: A £21 million cut to its support’). This was a major blow to universities that are bound to be experiencing more pressure on their funds. TEFS observed that without such a ‘taskforce’ “the situation will evolve from a few deferrals to many more dropouts over time”. The true extent of this has yet to be revealed. 

At this point, the level of 'dropouts' remains hidden from view and the government shows little concern. Yet the government agreed to pay fees from the Student Loan Company (SLC) upfront well in advance of the usual dates. This was based upon last year’s figures plus a nominal extra 5% cap. In late October, the SLC reported ‘£5 billion in student finance paid so far this term’. However, a significant number of students dropping out will seriously dent this income and the SLC will have to get the money back. 

What is known today? 

The Shadow Universities Minister, Emma Hardy, formally asked the Education Secretary at the Department for Education (DfE) what the situation was on 20th October 2020. She specifically called for information on “the number of university students who have deferred their studies since the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year.” Her counterpart at the DfE, Michelle Donelan, answered on 30th October with: 

“The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) have published data on the number of deferrals during the 2020 applications cycle. 
This shows that, at this point, 25,520 of all UK applicants placed at UK higher education providers had deferred their place, which equates to 5.8% of all placed applicants. This is a 0.1 percentage point increase on the previous year; at the same point in the previous applications cycle (2019), 5.7% of all placed UK applicants had deferred their place”. 

This is, of course, not a satisfactory answer as it only refers to older, freely available, data gathered BEFORE the start of the academic year. 

The answer is also somewhat surprising since it is certain the DfE has a good idea what is happening. In response to a tweet from TEFS on 19th October (see the exchange below) the Office for Students (OfS) defined its position clearly in that it was gathering data from the Student Loans Company to “develop a real time understanding”. But when asked when this information would become available, they again replied with “we don’t have a publication date”. It seems the data is there in “real time” but is not to be divulged at this point. Universities are reporting the situation and the DfE and OfS must be aware of what is happening. 

What can students do if they are struggling? 

Every institution has a set of well-developed rules and procedures to accommodate students wishing to suspend their studies after term has started. Deferrals only apply to those seeking to do so before they register (matriculate) at their University. It is likely many were advised to register to get on the books and then seek help. This puts them on a very different footing. The threat of not being allowed to defer studies for a year, and having to apply again next year, would have coloured the decision to press on this year. Once in the door, the options open out. All universities have similar rules, and in better times these would have been deployed on occasions to help students manage their way through their studies. This year may have been different. 

Manchester University is as good an example as any. They offer a route to ‘suspending studies for a period’ and this is a good option for students finding they cannot proceed because of unexpected financial changes or other reasons. This is termed ‘Interruptions & Withdrawals’ in Manchester. The full policy is outlined here. It states “If you come across some difficulties during your studies which mean that completing the semester, year or remainder of your degree is not possible, you might want to consider a temporary interruption or withdrawal from your course.” 

As a lecturer at another Russell Group University, I advised many students to take this option if they were finding their situation was damaging their studies too much. Many of these were being dragged down by part-time jobs. The consequences are often not as bad as many students think. Manchester University goes on to spell out that there is likely to be a financial cost. However, many students may have factored this into their plan at the start. 

These are: 
Withdrawal/suspension between 05/10/2020 – 10/01/2021 – 25% of the total fee will be charged 
Withdrawal/suspension between 11/01/2021 – 11/04/2021 – 50% of the total fee will be charged 
Withdrawal/suspension between 12/04/2021 – 11/06/2021 – 100% (i.e. the full tuition fee) will be charged 

This means that students in Manchester could still seek to suspend their studies up to the end of this term citing the difficulties they are currently experiencing with finances, the lockdown, or both. Bearing in mind some students will be tied to accommodation contracts for at least one term, it is likely they will sit it out for now. Some Universities have promised to release students from accommodation costs if they leave early, however Manchester University is very vague on this point. By the end of term, with fee deadlines looming, more may see it as better to try to start again next year. 

A perfect storm. 

TEFS looked in some detail at the situation for students and finances at university back on the 26th August 2020 in ‘The perfect storm for Universities PART TWO: The COVID-19 ‘time bomb blind-spot’. There is no reason to conclude that the situation might be getting better. The scene is playing out as expected as the various UK governments respond too slowly in their different ways. 

A report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) earlier this week, ‘2020 annual report on education spending in England’ painted a bleak picture of university finances. The main focus of its accompanying online webinar ‘Resource challenges facing further and higher education’ was on the escalating cost of the staff pension scheme. TEFS also looked at the situation with ‘How precarious are universities in the UK?’ back on 22nd May 2020. By pointing out in the IFS webinar that most students do not know how much of their fees are going on propping up the pension payments, they simply added petrol to the fire. But of course everyone teaching them has a pension, that is the expectation. The main report also recognised the potential of losses accumulating with the departure of students by saying, “While student numbers appear to have held up for now, universities might still lose income if large numbers of students drop out before completing their degrees.” Paying back the upfront money from the SLC could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. TEFS warned of a very likely scenario in ‘Impact of Coronavirus measures on the working student: The nudge that breaks the camel’s back’ on the 16th of March 2020 with, 

“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.” 

It now seems things are about to unravel unless firmer action is taken. The problems in Manchester are not unique as the situation in other universities is revealed (see The Guardian today ‘England campus lockdowns creating ‘perfect storm’ for stressed students’). Rent strikes and further disruption are on the rise. Waiting for more data to come in is not an option. Instead, proactive measures are needed. To break the downward spiral, the government and universities should ‘test and disperse all students’ and admit the plan to date has backfired. More students will vote with their feet if they sense they are of secondary importance.

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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