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Why a student support task force is needed

And it should not be an ‘Impossible Mission Force'. If the government was serious about supporting students at this time, it would set up a coordinated taskforce similar to its research and sustainability task force set up last May. Instead, this has remained the priority despite ample warnings. Now there is a panic reaction that will do little more than bail out student accommodation providers who fear students defaulting on their rent payments. Precious time is being lost as students, and increasingly hard-pressed families, are taking most of the hit. It is doubtful this will be forgotten in time.

Proof that a taskforce on students is needed was amply displayed in parliament this week. An urgent debate was in response to the release of a limited amount of support with ‘Government announces £50 million to support students impacted by Covid-19’ on Tuesday. On the same day, the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, wrote to all students to stress how much support she was giving to them. She also wrote to staff and asked universities and unions to circulate the letters. Copies do not appear in the government www site as of today, but all universities appear to have published them as requested.

These were hasty responses following a highly critical report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Students (APPG Students), ‘APPG Students inquiry into tuition and accommodations costs during Covid-19: The Case for Compensation’. That report was also hastily produced after a call for evidence from various interested groups on the 8th of January 2021 (See TEFS 29th January 2021 ‘The temperature is rising on student support’). The figure of £50 million seems to have been plucked from thin air and was not defended as based on any quantifiable need.

The case for a task force on students.

This was unintentional but well made by the Chair of the APPG Students on Wednesday when Donelan was pressed by MPs about what is being done. It was led off by an urgent question from the Chair of the APPG on students, Paul Blomfield. The question was “To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on support for university students as a result of the pandemic”.
The encounter is below, on Parliamentary TV on Vimeo and in Hansard.
Donelan was sent out alone to respond. Her limited answers were countered by a robust critique that observed other parts of the UK were doing far more per student than in England. Blomfield called for full rent rebates, at least doubling of the current hardship fund, that was intended for other purposes, acknowledgement of loss of part-time jobs, learning loss help, and extension support for post-graduate research students. There was little substantial by way of a response. A later response to a question from Shadow Education secretary, Kate Green, was that the £70 million since December 2020 was indeed new funding. In fact, it is only £49 million up on the funding in 2019/20 (TEFS 2nd February 2021). There was also no answer to the question about how many students were finding problems accessing digital resources. It seems that the Minister, the Department for Education (DfE) and the Office for Students (OfS) probably have no idea about the numbers involved.

A ‘Taskforce for Student Support’

TEFS sought a ‘Taskforce for Student Support’ back in June 2020 in an open letter to Donelan, and the other University Ministers in the UK jurisdictions. While her counterpart ministers were supportive to some extent, Donelan ignored the plea in her reply to TEFS. She merely confirmed a £21 million cut in the funding available in universities. This was disastrous neglect of a situation bound to worsen. The opportunity was lost to coordinate a response with the OfS, Universities, employers, and accommodation providers in advance. Alleviating the loss of jobs in the student body should have been a key priority and landlords should be expected to take a share of the hit on their income.

Follow the money to see the priority.

Late today, the OfS was able to release its guidance on how the additioinal £49 million was to be spent by universities ‘Office for Students distributes £50 million hardship funding’. This was in response to a letter from Donelan three days earlier, ‘Strategic guidance to the OfS: Distribution of further hardship funding (February 2021)’. The conclusion is that the private accommodation providers, and universities that have not provided rent refunds on their accommodation, will benefit most. This is because £40 million of the funding will go towards students struggling to pay rents. It is plain to see where the priorities lie. It would be easier to just give the money directly to the landlords and cut out the students in between. But it seems all students are expected to continue to pay rent as they and their families take the full hit.

Reviewing the reviewers.

There seem to be too many reviews already and now we even have reviews of reviews. It may also be no coincidence that an evaluation of its own initiative ‘Transforming Access and Stuidents Outcomes in Higher Edfucation (TASO)’ was published by the OfS today (‘Evaluating the delivery and impact of the OfS investment in the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes’). Dated September 2020, the report by the commercial ‘Technopolis Group’ seems to have been a long time hidden in long grass. TASO was set up in 2019 and their own report from November 2020, ‘Understanding the impact of interventons to address inequality in the student experience’, concluded that there was “a severe lack of robust evidence on how to improve the retention and attainment of students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds in higher education” COVID is only mentioned once in the context of “minimizing the attainment gap for disadvantaged and under-represented groups.”

As a result of an apparent “lack of robust evidence”, TASO has produced a ‘toolkit’ for institutions to consider interventions that might work best. Some of this states the obvious such as noting financial support for students ‘post entry’ has a positive effect on outcomes, but is costly. Unfortunately, most of their evidence comes from the USA and is not in the UK context. There is now an urgent need to update the advice in the light of the COVID-19 impact.

The evaluation by the Technopolis Group in September is comprehensive as a 76-page report with a lot of supporting data. However, a surprise is that COVID is only mentioned twice in the context of difficulties in getting evidence from institutions. The study only provides a baseline for evaluation of TASO up to 2024. However, it concludes that only around 30% of universities were aware of TASO. Something that really does not surprise. It will be seen as an exercise in doing nothing positive by universities working at the front line. There is a long way to go in the development of a realistic cost-benefit analysis of investing in student support.

What other support can students access?

The review of TASO is valuable since it also tabulates a range of organisations that offer support. TEFS own survey has revealed an even wider range of organisations that would appear bewildering to most students. Some organisations offer assistance and mentoring for students who wish to enter university education. Then, there are numerous bursaries across the sector. These can be divided into those awarded on merit and those warded on the basis of need. Historically, there have been many more merit-based opportunities and fewer for those in need. The result is a jungle of support mechanisms to navigate around.

One idea that a student taskforce might wish to consider is a bringing together of organisations offering support. The idea that universities bear the main burden independently and alone should be ditched. UCAS provides only limited advice on funding and simply refers students to the course provider. Examples such as the Scholarship Hub scheme is for disadvantaged students, but is highly competitive and merit based. A search of Turn2us leads the student to a plethora of small grant sources and back around to universities. This is because universities administer a huge range of grants and bursaries. Thankfully, Save the Student gives a ready guide and a full list of bursary sources.

However, it would be better if students were well prepared before deciding on university courses and the support they would need. It is clear that some institutions would be better for them than others. TEFS has advocated assessment for university entry at age seventeen, as in Scotland, to provide better preparation and time to decide in a more informed way (TEFS 15th January 2021 ‘A radical overhaul of examinations is needed as soon as possible’). This is a genuine way forward.

A personal observation.

One of my essential paid summer jobs  as a student was in the laboratory of a large industrial company in 1974. I was befriended by the soon to retire head of the laboratory. He told me that his claim to fame was telling the Chairman of ICI in 1934 to “f**k off”. Coming from a mining family in County Durham, he graduated with a First-Class Degree in Chemistry at Durham University the same year. He did this by securing numerous scholarships to a total that exceeded his father’s wages. He was even sending money home to help the family through difficult times. In an attempt to recruit him to ICI, the then Chairman, Sir Harry McGowan (soon to be Lord McGowan) had apparently offered a six-month unpaid trial position. This was unfortunate and assumed he could support himself. Instead, ICI had simply lost a talent by making a very basic and erroneous middle-class assumption. We cannot let our higher education system slip back to those times.

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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