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Always late or better late than never with student support

The government made a surprise decision today to inject a
further £50 million into universities in England to support students experiencing financial hardship. It is a very late move triggered by increasing pressure in the last few weeks. There has not been a mass exodus of students from universities so far this academic year but universities must be experiencing considerable problems with student engagement (TEFS19th January 2021). Although very late, the funding is essential to avoid a larger shortfall in attainment by many students with fewer resources. Hopefully, it will be easy to access and not already too late as the situation worsens.

The £50 million offered today (Government announces £50 million to support students impacted by Covid-19) falls far short of what the All Party Parliamentary Group on students (APPG Students) recommended last week (‘APPG Students inquiry into tuition and accommodations costs during Covid-19: The Case for Compensation’). If funding in England was to match that made available in Wales pro rata, then it should be at least double the £256 million already on the table last summer.

However, the government has fully acknowledged for the first time since the pandemic started that there is a problem. This is despite numerous warnings. It seems that their attitude has softened a bit with, “The new funding means that universities will be able to help students impacted by the pandemic, for example those facing additional costs for alternative accommodation, loss of employment, or extra costs to access their teaching online”.

But it is certain the support was only offered in the face of a storm of criticism (See TEFS 29th January 2020 ‘The temperature is rising on student support’).

There has been growing concern about how students with disadvantages and fewer resources would cope since universities locked down near the end of the last academic year. There was the obvious multiplier effect of poor accommodation, lack of money for living costs, patchy internet access, and the loss of part-time jobs. Yet the government turned to supporting universities first, and especially research, not students.

Plucking numbers out of thin air.

The problem is identifying where the figure of £50 million came from. It is hard to believe that data has been gathered from around the sector to identify the shortfall. The response from Universities UK, through its Chief Executive, was very short and somewhat ambivalent on direct financial support for students. Whilst acknowledging that “Financial hardship has been a growing problem throughout this pandemic” he also noted the need for more for the university as “further funding to alleviate the substantial increases in demand that university wellbeing and support services are experiencing." This response implies two things. Firstly, the Universities may not have raised this issue directly in any substantial way with the government. Secondly, that the Department of Education (DfE) did not gather data in advance to gauge the real extent of the problem. Both seem likely.

At the time of writing the Office for Students (OfS) has not responded as they await further instruction. They were responsible for administering the £20 million addition in December 2020 (OfS 18th December 2020). The priorities were set out by the DfE and stressed widening support beyond those usually supported by the student access fund. It is assumed that similar advice will emerge for the latest funding.

Things are never what they seem.

The announcement today is welcome although very late. It should also be taken in the context of cuts made for 2020/21, announced on the 6th of May 2020 by the OfS with ‘Funding for academic years 2019-20 and 2020-21 OfS board decisions and outcomes of consultation’.

The simple fact is the government cut the so-called access fund by £21 million from the £277 million in 2019/20 to £256 million in 2020/21 (see TEFS 11th September 2021 ‘Government response to digital poverty, job losses, and student hardship: A £21 million cut to its support’). The release of £50 million is in addition to the £20 million announced in December, bringing the apparent total this year to £70 million. However, it represents much less extra in response to the pandemic and its effects. Billed as “New funding will go to universities to help students facing financial difficulties arising from the impact of coronavirus”, it is far less than the reported “£70 million for this financial year”. It is in fact only an extra £49 million on top of the figure for 2019/20. Why did it take until December 2020 to wake up to a problem?

Task force on student support and access called for.

TEFS wrote an open letter to Donelan, and the other University Ministers in the UK jurisdictions, to seek setting up a ‘Taskforce for Student Support’. While her counterpart ministers were supportive to some extent, Donelan ignored the plea in her letter to TEFS. She merely confirmed that £256 million was available to help students, despite this already being in place, as the access fund intended for other uses, and a cut from the previous year. The Government had already decided to advance the fee income to help universities, not students. But this was simply offering help akin to a ‘payday loan’. It was only a short-term measure (see TEFS 4th May 2020 ‘Universities to get 'payday loan' sticking plaster’).

The priority of the government was all too clear back then. It was determined to support research-intensive universities. This explained why Universities UK also prioritised research in their plea to the government (‘UUK response to UK government announcement on a support package for universities’. There was no suggestion of support for students themselves. Instead, “further support to protect the strength, capacity and quality of the research base and ensure the sector is positioned to support economic and social recovery through research and innovation”. The plea was heeded quickly and Donelan promptly chaired a meeting of its new Research Taskforce in May 2020 (‘Ministerial University Research and Knowledge Exchange Sustainability Taskforce’).

Blind-spot or wilful indifference.

It is hard to pin down why the government seems to have such a ‘blind spot’ about students in difficulty (TEFS 5th June 2020 ‘Blind spot about student finances cruelly exposed by COVID-19 crisis’). It could be limited perception and a lack of experience. After all, they come from well-off backgrounds and had a comfortable university education. University is therefore seen as something that happens in this context. They may then see it as certain that families will always support their offspring at university. Yet the government can hardly have missed the warning signs. Yes, most university students do not have part-time jobs and are supported by their families. But rising unemployment in the pandemic is changing that landscape fast. Many more are experiencing the lack of support endured by a minority of students over the years. The system has been unequal for a long time. Disadvantaged students and those from low participation areas do not get the same resources and help as their better off peers. All the data points to that simple fact.

The alternative is that Westminster is harbouring a government intent on keeping the status quo in their favour. Donelan let her guard slip in a response to questions at an Education Committee evidence session on 15th July 2020 with a flippant dismissal “It doesn’t matter about looking at which groups don’t get to university” (TEFS 15th July 2020 "It doesn't matter about looking at which groups don't get to university"). By then, a limited and late response to calls for student support already looked like it would be simply wilful indifference.

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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