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Universities finally recognise there is a resource crisis for students
It looks like there might be some light behind the dark clouds for students struggling with their university studies. In a letter to the Education Secretary today, all the UK universities acknowledged that there is a widening gap in access to resources by students. It may have come far too late for those struggling now. Many will have disengaged, or hopefully suspended their studies if they asked for help. Although the letter is focused on access to remote learning in a deteriorating environment, it also lets us know that “the demand for hardship funding has doubled”. This comes as no surprise, but it has not been acknowledged in public before now.
It is likely that JISC first noticed that there were mounting problems with “thousands of higher education students who are still unable to access their education online due to digital and data poverty”.
In an unprecedented move, the letter was signed by the heads of Universities UK, Guild HE, and UCISA. This means every type of higher education institution in the UK has signed up to the letter.
Digital poverty is only one side of a much bigger problem.
Whilst the letter emphasises the need for better digital access for students forced to study remotely, it also reveals something far worse. There is acknowledgement for the first time about the need for equality in studying with “It is critical that the 1.8 million university students who are having to learn remotely have equal access to data and devices”. The COVID crisis has led to this conclusion and exposed the inequalities that have existed below the surface for many years.
The revelation “for many providers, the demand for hardship funding has doubled, putting significant strain on resources and leading to concerns about their ability to meet support needs” should set alarm bells ringing. Indeed, they should have been ringing since last March.
This should have been obvious many months ago and brought to the attention of the government earlier. Their move today could be far too late for many students who have disengaged from their university education. I suspect this is now so bad, the universities were forced to react.
How many students are involved?
It is clear students from less advantaged backgrounds are not equally distributed around our universities. The elite Russel Group universities have far fewer than their post-92 colleagues. Yet it is now certain that more families are finding themselves in financial difficulties over this academic year and all universities are now waking up to catastrophe unfolding.
The Office for Students (OfS) advised TEFS that it was working closely with the Student Loans Company (SLC) on monitoring the number of students dropping out (TEFS 4th December 2020 ‘Turn up, log in, drop out…… suspend studies?’). Sure enough, the SLC released some data on the 23rd of December 2020 showing that fewer students had withdrawn from their studies in 2020/21 than in the previous year.
However, they omitted to release the data showing the numbers of students suspending their studies or temporarily withdrawing. That is not withdrawing completely but asking for a break in their studies to the next academic year. This is the most likely action to be taken by students running into difficulties and asking for help. Sadly, my experience in the past has been that some just disengage and ‘go missing’. They were chased up and seen in order to offer help. But, in the current crisis, it becomes more likely that struggling first year students will sit alone and just give up. They will not have had the personal support of other students and lecturers that is so crucial to building confidence.
The SLC informed TEFS later in December that they would not be releasing this information. Yet they will have data on students suspending their funding. TEFS still has a formal Freedom of Information request awaiting a response from the SLC and expects a clear answer.
Today saw a debate in the UK Parliament about maintaining the universal credit and working credit uplift for families beyond April. They voted to urge the Prime Minister to retain the support. Some Conservative MPs voted with the Labour benches and in the face of the Prime Minister who urge his member to abstain. To most observers, this seems to be a ‘no brainer’, yet many on the government benches are opposed to offering more help. They turn their backs on the many who need it as a lifeline for survival. Yet it is only a small offering of a ‘life vest’ in the face of an economic tidal wave. Abstaining or voting against this measure will sink the government in time as the reality bites and people drown in poverty.
Projections by the Resolution Foundation that “Rising unemployment and the removal of the £20 uplift in 2021-22 will also lead to a further 1.2 million people falling into relative poverty, 400,000 of whom are children” and “By 2024-25, we project that 23.0 per cent of individuals will be living in relative poverty” are backed by details that describe the reality for many. While those on lower incomes are being hit hardest, others and beginning to see a downturn. Those with savings will not be able to claim universal credit and will see their safety net dissolve. Crucially, savings intended to support their children as students at university now and into the future will be declining fast along with aspirations, as unemployment hits and inflation rises. The Resolution Foundation understatement “The triple hit of the financial crisis, Brexit and Covid-19 has not been good for typical household incomes” sums it up.
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.
UPDATE 8th August 2020 Things are moving fast today with severe criticism mounting about Ofqual and SQA, and urgent action is needed. TEFS has laid out ten points that should be considered to reverse out of the crumbling mess. Fairness should replace 'maintaining standards' as the primary objective. The government must cease trying to defend a system that acts as a barrier to the less advantaged. Since posting yesterday, things have been moving fast. Today the Guardian put the examinations issue in large print on its front page with ‘Nearly 40% of A-level result predictions to be downgraded in England’ . This conclusion came about after some great detective work by former medical statistician, Huy Duong, who analysed the data available and reconciled this with the Ofqual announcement that there could have been a 12% inflation in higher grades. It seems that Ofqual have been caught red handed and "Duong’s findings were privately confirmed to the Guardian by ex
This week confirmed beyond any doubt that Ofqual is pointing the finger of blame for the public examinations chaos this summer firmly at the government and its ministers. The positions of Schools Minister, Nick Gibb and Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson must be on the line. When Williamson is confronted by the Education Committee next week, like Momus he may find his mask has slipped and cannot lay blame anywhere else. He might be meeting his Nemesis and find he is expelled from his lofty position. Called to account. On Wednesday morning, Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, Education Permanent Secretary, Susan Acland-Hood, and Director for Qualifications, Michelle Dyson, will be called to account by the Education Committee. With the redoubtable Robert Halfon in the chair, they will face a hard time. This is because Halfon and his colleagues will be armed with more documentary evidence from Ofqual and others that look bad for both ministers. All of the correspo
UPDATE: Augar Speaks out Today, Friday 8th May 2020, Philip Augar broke cover and commented on the financial crisis in our universities in the Financial Times. With ' The time is ripe to reform UK university finance' he acknowledged that "Covid-19-related disruption may now mean that such a fee cut would be too destabilising" . He is looking to a new post-COVID-19 world and he must be listened to. The likelihood of the government's response to his report last year diverging far from its recommendations looms. Augar has offered alternative options for funding Universities in his article for the Financial Times today (8th May 2020). His input is welcome at this time and the government should be bringing him into the fold again. TEFS has argued for a comprehensive review of university finances that goes well beyond simply looking at students and fees with: "Therefore, a working group involving students (such as NUS), staff (such as UCU) universi