The winter will get colder: the blind spot of a crisis in student finance

With yet another Conservative administration under Rishi Sunak about to set sail, it appears that a crisis in public finances is inevitable. Sunak is promising to adhere to the Conservative 2019 manifesto, but this is looking frayed at the edges three years later. There will be cuts and the fear is that students sink to the bottom of the pile for consideration.

The costings presented in the 2019 manifesto look well out of date, and even naïve considering the events that have elapsed. Sunak and his Chancellor have a major headache.  Greater investment in Universities and Colleges featured greatly in the promises made then and are a major part of the ‘levelling up’ agenda.  Acknowledgment of a gap in opportunities is core to this agenda and “Talent and genius are uniformly distributed throughout the country. Opportunity is not. Now is the time to close that gap”.

On funding, Sunak should be reminded that it was promised, “We will look at the interest rates on loan repayments with a view to reducing the burden of debt on students”.

But this did not last long. Maintenance loans are nowhere near keeping pace with inflation and back in March Chancellor Sunak announced that the government was to claw back billions from student loan repayments. This is going to hit hard alongside below inflation maintenance loans.  His assertion during the earlier leadership campaign was that he  would phase out university degrees that do not improve students’ “earning potential” hardly compensates those struggling now.

Reported by the Institute For Fiscal Studies (IFS) as, ‘Student loans reform is a leap into the Unknown’, the plan was to cut the salary threshold for repayments from 27,295 to £25,000 for students starting in 2023. If that was not enough, they would also have to pay back over 40 years instead of 30 years. Any increase in the maintenance loans will exacerbate the debt burden.

Back July while basking in a heatwave, TEFS reported the situation looming with,  ‘Student hardship: it’s going to be a cold winter’. There were ominous signs of rising pressure.  The distribution of hardship finding by universities had doubled in 2020/21 with many more students calling for help. This was ameliorated to some extent by many students fortunate enough to secure part-time jobs, although fewer than before the pandemic. But those with jobs worked more hours.

Questions being asked.

The Education Secretary, Kit Malthouse,  was in Parliament this morning to be subjected to a barrage of questions regarding the provision of education at all levels.  It was probably the last time he would do this as he is unlikely to survive yet another reshuffle in the coming days. (Added Tuesday 25th October 2022. The new Education Secretary was announced today as Gillian Keegan, a rare post-92 university educated minister and the fifth in only four months).The whole encounter is available at: Parliamentlive.tv – House of Commons.

The first question came from Labour’s Cat Smith, “What steps he is taking to help support students with the cost of living?” and was followed up by Matt Western, the Shadow Universities Minister.

Malthouse admitted that he was not aware of a report from the Million+ universities setting out the extent of the problem.  There was time as this emerged on the 10th of October. So, it is clear he should have been briefed on its stark conclusion that, “nearly 300,000 students will be at-risk due to the cost-of-living crisis”.  The full report,  “Learning_with_the_lights_off_-_students_and_the_cost_of_living_crisis”, doesn’t pull its punches and illustrates the crisis is already here. It is also one of the rare acknowledgements from a university that student time spent in part-time hobs damages academic progress.

Yet a continued failure to notice the warnings illustrates a lack of appreciation of the plight of many students and their families. This is amply illustrated here.

To answer the question, Malthouse trotted out the old sleight of hand explanation used by Michelle Donelan in 2020. Essentially allowing universities to divert funds from the Student Premium, and dressing this up as more funding, when it fact it was a £21 Million CUT!  (See TEFS 11th September 2020 ‘Government response to digital poverty, job losses, and student hardship: A £21 million cut to its support’).

It’s clear to anyone that this will not be good enough. However, he indicated that a new package of support would emerge in time. Hopefully not too late for those struggling now. 

A blind spot persists.

It often appears that the government has a collective ‘blind spot’ about the need for student support (TEFS 5th June 2020 ‘Blind spot about student finances cruelly exposed by COVID-19 crisis’).

This is replicated across the sector in many of its darker corners.  Pre-Covid, I was told by a senior member of staff leading student support at one university that, “If they cannot afford it, then they should not go to university”.  This is wearing very thin.  Essentially there is an assumption that families will support their children at university. Any government support can be minimum and assumes families can always be squeezed further. 

In addition to the Million+ report from earlier this month, Malthouse has a wide range of recent evidence available to him. An IFS analysis in June 2022 ‘Student living cost support cut to lowest level in seven years’ noted, “Due to inflation forecast errors alone, students from the poorest families will lose £100 per month in maintenance support”.  With inflation rising further in the coming year, it can only get worse”.

In September the National Union of Students (NUS) issued its “Cost of Living policy proposals to support students” based upon its ‘Student Cost of Living Report’(.pdf) that showed that over 30% of students “have £50 or less to live on per month after paying rent and bills”.  This is a stark conclusion.

TEFS has particularly highlighted the situation with excessive hours in part-time jobs. More recently in July with, ‘Student hardship: it’s going to be a cold winter’.

The evidence of a ‘two tier’ system, dividing those with time and resources from those with little of both, is overwhelming as illustrated here.

The new Secretary of State for Education must get to grips with this to prevent talented and able students, with pressure of time and a lack of resources holding them back, from failing or dropping out.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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