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The temperature is rising on student support

The rising  temperature surrounding support for students was elevated dramatically today with the eagerly awaited release of a report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Students (APPG Students),
‘APPG Students inquiry into tuition and accommodations costs during Covid-19: The Case for Compensation’. The report was hastily produced after a call for evidence from groups representing students, universities, accommodation providers, regulators, and the Department for Education (DfE) on the 8th January 2021. The responses were from The National Union of Students (NUS), 47 students’ unions and 294 individual students, as well as sector groups and accommodation providers. There was no response reported for the DfE or the Office for Students (OfS). The report is the first indication of a rising concern at the fringes of government that “many students have suffered a loss of income” from part-time jobs and that “Many of their families will also have been hit by the financial impact of the pandemic”. This may come too late, but the urgency of the situation must be acknowledged.

The Guardian was first off the mark with ‘MPs call for student Covid disruption funding in England to be doubled’ and the Express astounded everyone with their front page headline, ‘Shame of universities sitting on £46.2BN as students pay thousands to be 'neglected' . Their original headline about support for students ‘Fair Deal for Forgotten Victims of COVID’ (in the title picture) persisted for a short time before being replaced. Perhaps it was not quite on message for its readers and supporters who prefer to bash students and what they see as university profligacy.

The recommendations may be too late.

The APPG recommendations are expressed as urgent, “practical, proportionate and necessary”. It is stressed that students have seen very little in terms of support from schemes such as furlough and nothing from unemployment benefits. However, it could be far too late for students who are finding the situation increasingly untenable.

The main recommendation on hardship funds indicates the need for “an additional sum more than doubling existing student premium funding, of £256 million”. The report acknowledges that the government in Wales has offered much more support to its students and that “Applying the Welsh approach would suggest a figure around £700 million for England”. This is in addition to suggesting the government and universities offer refunds on tuition fee and rents.

Who are APPG students?

The group are genuinely cross-party and boast a membership of fifty-one MPs. It is of particular interest that the secretariat of the group is provided by the NUS. The report itself was signed on behalf of the group by nine members, including its chair, Labour MP Paul Blomfield and former Universities Minister, David Willets. Whilst the APPG has no direct powers to effect change, they can cause embarrassment and force a rethink. Their recommendations are also a direct challenge to the Office for Students and The DfE.

The likely response.

The government, in England at least, are expected to ignore the findings of the APPG. The APPG rightly notes that additional support for students was forthcoming in Wales. But, as reported first by TEFS in September  with, ‘Government response to digital poverty, job losses, and student hardship: A £21 million cut to its support’ (TEFS 11th September 2020), the Higher Education Minister, Michelle Donelan,  had cut funding for student Hardship funds. She had responded to a letter from TEFS and the suggestion that the government should set up a task group for students, alongside the priority task group for research, was dismissed. A later injection of £20 million in November was just setting the clock back. This attitude revealed a disregard for students under financial hardship and appears to be a deliberate action. The perception that most students come from families that can afford to back their student offspring seems to pervade government at many levels. It seems others are of lesser importance and the government's actions are deliberate. TEFS described this as “wilful indifference”.

The context.

The government has little excuse for not realising that a problem was likely to escalate over the academic year. TEFS highlighted the issue of loss of part-time employment by students back in March with ‘Impact of Coronavirus measures on the working student: The nudge that breaks the camel’s back’ (16th March 2020). Subsequent replies to a Freedom of Information request by TEFS to all universities had a very good response and revealed that nearly all had no idea about how many of their students relied upon part-time jobs (TEFS 16th June 2020 ‘University student part-time working is a dangerous blind spot’ and the Guardian ‘University students who work part-time need support – or they will drop out’ ). The government in England appeared oblivious to the situation and actually cut the funds available for student hardship (TEFS 11th September 2020 ‘Government response to digital poverty, job losses, and student hardship: A £21 million cut to its support’).

It is no coincidence that all universities decided to write to the Education Secretary last week to seek more support for students as reported by TEFS in ‘Universities finally recognise there is a resource crisis for students’ (TEFS 18th January 2021). This was clearly a very late way to pre-empt other findings emerging that looked set to embarrass them.

Role of the National Union of Students.

The pressure on the government to act has been led very effectively by the NUS. They have been central to the recent studies, and the evidence emerging in the last few months, by working with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the APPG itself.

The APPG report today comes on the back of the ‘Student Covid Insights’ report from the ONS in December 2020, ‘Coronavirus and the impact on students in higher education in England: September to December 2020’. This was followed on Wednesday by, ‘Coronavirus and higher education students: England, 8 January to 18 January 2021’, that further raised the temperature. It showed a marked rise in dissatisfaction amongst the students surveyed when compared to the earlier period in 2020. However, although the surveys were carried out alongside the NUS, they failed to capture how many students were having financial difficulties. This was always going to be of critical importance, possibly the most important issue.

This omission was partially filled in a separate survey by the NUS in November 2020, with the timely release of the results on 14th January 2021, ‘NUS Coronavirus Student Survey Phase III November 2020 Finance’. Although conducted between the 6th and 23rd of November 2020, and only involving 193 students, it provided a first glimpse of the financial situation emerging. 

It was hardly surprising that half of the students said that the income of someone who supports them financially was impacted by Covid-19. Thinking ahead to beyond the pandemic, three in four said there were concerned about their ability to manage financially. A surprise was that the proportion in part-time employment had only declined from 31% in 2020 to 20%. However, 49% indicated that they had no work to hold them back. Critically, 73% said they were worried about ability to manage financially during pandemic with 13% saying they were extremely concerned. Sizeable numbers had resorted to food banks, credit card debt and bank loans with 39% relying on their families to bail them out. Oddly, only 8% had gone to their university hardship fund. This must be seen as a last resort and it may be that it was not promoted as well as it might. The idea that there would be a promise of 'no detriment' had taken hold from the previous  academic year. This has now been removed at most universities and many students will be in a panic.

Are students staying the course.

The surprise from the worsening situation is that students are not leaving their courses in large numbers. A disclosure by the Student Loans Company (SLC) in December 2020 revealed that 5,448 had withdrawn from  their courses and the student loan. This was a decrease from 6,113 in the same period of the previous year. In a response to a Freedom of Information request from TEFS this week, the SLC revealed that a further 3,138 students had withdrawn since their report last term bringing the total to 8,586. This is not a huge number and the SLC stress they have no information about why students are withdrawing or suspending their studies. Because the term ‘withdrawing’ implies that the students have left their university and are unlikely to return, TEFS considered that suspending studies or temporarily withdrawing, would be more likely (see TEFS December 4th 2020 'Turn up, log in, drop out…… suspend studies?'). The FOI response from the SLC indicated that across the UK, 7,851 students have opted for this. This is only slightly higher than  the 7,627 in the same period of the previous year.

Learning loss at university.

The APPG report also recognises that there must have been a considerable amount of 'lost learning’ accumulating this academic year. The emphasis this week has been on lost learning in schools and calls to get pupils back to school. The emphasis on schools has diverted attention away from universities and their situation. Yet the pressures and lack of resources will be largely the same as many students have little access to campus resources. The APPG recommendation is that the government should “establish a ‘Covid Student Learning Remediation Fund’, to allow lost learning to be addressed through provision of educational opportunities not available through the pandemic.” This is likely to be necessary as students progress in the coming years. Gaps in understanding, experience, and knowledge will emerge next year. Employers will see this in graduates as they emerge. Lecturers will see this in student progression. The perception of students by members of the government is again questionable. Most have little experience of Science, Engineering or Medical subjects and lean on their limited experiences of arts and humanities. They should bear in mind the serious dangers of shortfalls in professional education at this level. Engineers could become unsafe. Doctors and Nurses the same. I fear for the safety in a laboratory manned by scientists with little or no practical training.

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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