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.
Earlier today, the Guardian reported that all universities had signed a letter to the Education secretary, Gavin Williamson, that said “little has been done to help disadvantaged students access remote learning”. It shines a light into the darkness of what is actually going on in our universities at this time (The Guardian 18th January 2021 ‘'Digital poverty' could lead to lost generation of university students, vice-chancellors say’).
The letter was routed via the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) who have supported universities and colleges in network, IT, and digital resources since 1993. They released the full letter later this morning ‘Government action called for to lift HE students out of digital poverty’ (.pdf).
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.
What has gone wrong?
TEFS recognised early on that the 2020/2021 academic year would be a rocky one with many pitfalls for staff and students alike. The first term was horrendous as students were encouraged onto campuses and then locked down and blamed for nearly every consequence. Most universities did not have a grasp of how many of their students were working part-time to supplement their maintenance funds (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’). This move was despite considerable pressure and could hardly be a ‘blind spot’. It started to look deliberate and measured to expand the inequality gaps.
The reality for many families and students.
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.
More evidence today.
A timely reminder of the terrible situation came in an excellent report from the Resolution Foundation. Launched online this morning (see recording here), ‘The Living Standards Outlook 2021’ made for sobering reading on a difficult Monday morning. The hope is that all MPs would take in the situation, that has been put in the starkest terms today, before voting. The Opposition Day Debate ‘Access to remote education and the quality of free school meals’ is ongoing and it seems digital poverty for students of all ages is high on the list of concerns.
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.