Student hardship: it’s going to be a cold winter

Recent attention in the media has turned to existing student hardship and fear of what the future might hold.  The ongoing heatwave is deflecting attention from the possibility of inflation in a cold and harsh winter that will leave many hungry, out in the cold and struggling to exist. Students who are not able to rely upon additional family support will be particularity hard hit.  Those receiving a maximum maintenance loan will find it bad enough. Those with the minimum loan will need other sources of income. Excessive hours in part-time jobs are not a viable route to academic success. The track record of the government in recognising this as a problem coming down the line is not a good one. It’s time they ‘woke’ up.

Hardship funds under pressure.

The BBC recently sought to find out if student hardship had increased during the pandemic and to what extent.  They simply asked, through a freedom of information request (FOI), about the demand and deployment of hardship funds in the three years from 1918/19. They managed a creditable 132 responses. The broad conclusion was that ‘Hardship funding for students doubled last year’ (BBC News 1st July 2022). There was also a tripling of the number of students applying since 2018/19 (Figure 1) that may have reflected an inherent rise in need underneath the effect of the pandemic lockdowns. The need for help was clearly eating into the total student numbers that rose from 2.4 million to nearly 2.8 million over the same period.

There was a general acceptance early in the pandemic that the lockdowns would lead to many students losing their part time jobs, especially in the hospitality sector that surrounds most university campuses. This would impact directly on the ability of some students to continue their studies. The personal case of a student  reported by the BBC told a common story and illustrated that most universities set a high ‘proof of hardship’ bar to accessing funds, often when it is too late (explained by TEFS 26th August 2020). However, this was most likely to affect a minority of students and thay can often be forgotten. In the past, TEFS reported that ‘The vast majority – one million – of students have no employment when in full-time studies’ (TEFS 27th July 2018). Now, it is feared that a worsening economy will cause this number to rise in time over the coming academic year.

Things can only get worse.

The dual impact of an economic downturn and rising inflation will adversely affect most families. This alone will impact on their ability to support their children in education beyond what they might have saved for.  There will be a rapidly growing need to increase the student maintenance loan by the impending level of inflation and offer more hardship funding.  But, with a government distracted by the low tax ‘beauty parade’ of the would-be leaders, this looming problem will be side-lined. Coming back to it in September is far too late.  Instead, the government is looking to squeeze student finances more through its announcement back in February ‘Student finance: how you’re assessed and paid 2022 to 2023’ (see also critical synopsis from the Institute For Fiscal Studies (IFS) ‘Government uses high inflation as cover for hitting students, graduates and universities’.

Misplaced confidence.

So far there is little indication a change in direction will happen, and many students and families will be feeling less confident. Yet UCAS data to the end of June, and released this week, indicates ‘Record applications from disadvantaged students to higher education’.  They do not mean ‘disadvantaged’ as such but applicants from POLAR4 Q1 postcode areas (see Definitions and benchmark factors | HESA) based upon past participation rates in higher education. This is marginally up from 27% in 2021 to 28.8% this year and is in the context of a record number of applicants. Overall, now at 44.1% of all 18-year olds. However, the downwards pressure on examinations means many more may not achieve the grades they hoped for, and universities are generally restricting places as they try to cope with in house teaching. There may be an unholy scramble in clearing later this summer and confidence now could be wholly misplaced.

Universities cannot be expected to take up the slack.

We must not forget that inflation will also impact university finances and they cannot be expected to pick up a growing shortfall.  The needs and demands of students will rise fast. A recent survey by the NUS as part of its ‘Cost of Living Crisis’  campaign provided even more evidence of the impact of financial hardship on many students  with 92% saying this affects their mental health. This alone will stretch the resources of universities to breaking point.

Evidence for the scale of student part-time jobs.

Jobs during the academic year are often the only way some students can make up the financial shortfall that is built into the loans system.  But this is still a critical ‘blind spot’ (TEFS 16th June 2020 ‘University student part-time working is a dangerous blind spot in universities’) even though it adversely impacts academic success.

There are two good sources of information on the state of the student part-time employment market. These are the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Advance HE/Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) annual student experience survey.  This has been done between February and March each year since 2012 by YouthSight. They gather responses from their Student Panel that is made up of over 45,000 undergraduate students in the UK. The results, out in June of each year, cover the ongoing academic gear, so the 2022 survey data covers the 2021/22 year to March 2022. This very timely, even prescient, and there are usually well over 10,000 responses each year. It provides one of the best indications about how students are faring at a key point in the academic year. There is little excuse for not planning to expect more students in difficulty later this year.

How were student jobs affected during the pandemic?

Back in April 2021, TEFS reported the effect was probably less than feared in ‘Pandemic student employment: Over 75,000 lose jobs but job market survives collapse’.  This conclusion was reached by looking at ONS employment data available at that time. This is updated here up to March 2022 in Figure 2 where a rising number were becoming ‘economically inactive’ during the lockdown periods.

It is surprising, but clear, that the numbers in part-time employment did not decline catastrophically over the periods of lockdown. However, closer inspection reveals there was a large upturn in the number of students unemployed and seeking work at a critical point (Figure 3).  The proportion may be low in the context of total student numbers, but it means that over 75,000 were seeking jobs they would have had otherwise. This is not a trivial number.  Following a cyclical seasonal pattern observed for many years, the number appears to decline as they secured summer vacation jobs or dropped out of the job market for the summer. 

The numbers here go some way to explain the rise in applications for hardship funding. However, they do not reveal how so many students secured jobs over that period. The idea of ‘snowflake’ students melts in the apparent resilience they must have shown.

The student experience survey offers more insight into the situation.

The results of the Advance HE / Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) survey 2022 were released in June and provided more insight into the situation seen in the ONS data. The survey is comprehensive and, importantly, asks students how many hours they are in employment each week during the term up to March each academic year. The results are closely aligned with the ONS data and indicate that in 2021 as many as 66% were not burdened by losing hours to working outside of their studies. However, as more secured jobs in 2022, this proportion declined sharply to 55%.  Figure 4 shows that there was a significant dip in the proportion of students in part-time work at the height of the lockdown (red). This was expected but was not as bad as feared. Also, those who were working on average worked significantly more hours per week.

For the first time this year the survey asked an additional question concerning the reasons for taking on employment.  It may have come as a surprise in some quarters, but TEFS was not surprised that 77% indicated it was ‘to supplement my living costs’  with 19% needing to ‘to provide financial support to friends or family’.

What jobs did students do?

The survey did not ask what jobs so many students secured. One thing is certain, there were fewer jobs in hospitality with so many venues closed.  However anecdotal evidence is interesting.  The author has met a variety of students doing jobs in supermarkets, particularly manning click and collect stations. Others were making deliveries for a whole variety of operations from large warehouses to small restaurants.  One university VC told me that they were worried about the number of students working overnight as security guards. It seems the job market must have shifted dramatically for them to adapt. Also, this goes some way to explain the demand for online provision mixed with face-to-face teaching. Something more essential to dovetail with job shift patterns.

Past government recognition and response.

There is a recognition in many quarters that more students mean more hardship cases that will be exacerbated by inflation.  Rents, energy bill and food bills will all conspire to stretch an already meagre student budget. Sitting in the cold with not enough food is not conducive to successful learning.

Back in 2020 it was becoming clear that a problem was emerging. The then Higher Education Minister, Michelle Donelan used an outrageous sleight of hand when she announced £256 million was to be offered for student hardship support in the coming year. What she did not say was that it was being diverted from student premium funding. These funds are intended to be spread over IT, mental health, and other support besides hardship, so nothing new was on offer.   The reality was what  actually amounted to a CUT in support of £21 million (covered in detail in TEFS 11th September 2020 ‘Government response to digital poverty, job losses, and student hardship: A £21 million cut to its support’). Earlier in the summer of 2020, Michelle Donelan replied to an open letter from TEFS that an amount of £23 million per month from existing student premium funding to the end of July with “Providers can use the funding, worth around £23 million per month for April, May, June and July, towards student hardship funds”. However, the total fund for 2019/20 was already £277 million, or just over £23 million per month for “students who may need additional support to achieve successful outcomes”. These funds are intended to be spread over IT, mental health, and other support besides hardship, so nothing new was on offer.  Other evidence pointed to a rising tide of problems for students (see TEFS 26th August 2020 ‘The perfect storm for Universities PART TWO: The COVID-19 ‘time bomb blind-spot’). By September 2020, the NUS released the findings from its ‘Coronavirus and Students Survey Phase II’ that showed considerable problems were emerging.). 

Most students were asking family for more support and at that point only a small number were seeking student hardship support. However their families were also coming under pressure and this support was unlikely to be sustainable for very long. Internet access was also becoming a major problem and this was further highlighted by the OfS in their own report the same month, ‘Digital poverty’ risks leaving students behind’.

More action was needed by 2021.

By early in 2021, there was more evidence that a crisis was growing for the students involved. Representations from the NUS highlighted a growing problem and this fed into a parallel inquiry by the  All-Party Parliamentary University Group (APPG-universities.org.uk) in January 2021 with the release of its ‘APPG Students inquiry into tuition and accommodations costs during Covid-19:  The Case for Compensation’.  Although now very late, in April this triggered the release of further additional funding of £50 million in England. But this was still partly funded by diverting finds from other sources (Further additional funding of £50 million for student hardship for financial year 2020‑21 – Office for Students).

This fell far short of the APPG recommendations where they stated, “We believe that the priority is to provide students with the financial assistance that they need now … We feel that this approach is fairer and more effective than any general reduction in tuition fees. We believe that an additional sum more than doubling existing student premium funding, of £256m, would be required. Applying the Welsh approach would suggest a figure around £700m for England.”

Elsewhere in the UK.

Support for nearly 2 million students in England in 2020/21 fell well below that available in the rest of the UK. Wales added an extra £40 million for its 132,200 students. In Scotland, over 250,000 students were offered £30 million of additional funding on top of more generous support already available. More than £10m was made available in Northern Ireland where there are just two main universities.

The inflation wolf is at the door.

There is no denying the problem of inflation will continue to rise for some time and continue throughout the time new class of 2022 spend at university. Those of us long enough in the tooth to remember the stress of the 1970s and early 1980s know what this means. Yet it seems our political leaders are ever more detached from reality.  Instead, they are prepared to effectively cut the support for student living costs. No doubt they are deluded by the idea that families will be able to pick up the slack. But student loans will not rise to match inflation and the consequences will be severe. The Institute for Fiscal Studies pulled few punches when they made the case in June with ‘Student living cost support cut to lowest level in seven years’. They observed rightly that “Real-terms cuts in maintenance loans are not supposed to happen”. Indeed back in November 2021 the government’s ‘Higher education student finance 2022 to 2023 – equality analysis’ stated,

“On student support they clearly state that “Increasing the maximum level of student support available across these different streams of funding in line with forecast inflation aims to ensure that students do not suffer a real reduction in their income. This means they should be able to make the same spending decisions as they did previously with regards accommodation, travel, food, entertainment, and course related items such as books and equipment, the costs of which will also have been rising over time.” 

Yet with inflation set to rise dramatically from its current level of 9.1% (Consumer Price Index CPI), it seems there is no movement. Back in November an increase was set at 2.3% using RPI-X (Retail Price Index excluding mortgage interest payments) even though the CPI was already 3.1%. This is not good enough.

Waiting for a new administration to be far too late. Its time they ‘woke’ up.

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