When student hardship hits the funding fan

The crude strategy of the government appears to be one of keeping student maintenance funding below what is needed to survive and thus push families to fill the gap.  The reality is that many students put in more hours in part-time jobs at the expense of their studies.  Hardship funding is only conceded by government as a last resort and kept to a minimum to force universities to release their own reserves to keep students in place.  To paraphrase the parody Spock “It’s a ‘strategy’ Jim but not one as we know it”.  But there are always “Klingons on the starboard bow”.

Added 26th January 2023

Since first posting, two reports have emerged today that add to the growing evidence of a crisis for students and their families.

Firstly, there is research by the Sutton Trust that paints a bleak picture of an immediate need. In ‘Cost of living and university students’, the extent of  the srisis for some students. A fortunate 33% in the survey have not needed any additional financial support. Although not made clear, assuming the surveyed students were all from the UK, it’s interesting that 22.8% did not receive a maintenance loan from the government.  The less fortunate stand out with 63.4% spending lesson essentials and 27.8% skipping meals. As an aside, when I was a first-year student in 1974, dire circumstances led me to eating nothing for a week see TEFS from April 2018). I feel their hunger pain as I write this.  Only 11.4% said they had received hardship funding. This suggests more stress may be coming down the road. Instead, 44.6% needed extra support from their families. Worryingly, 26.6% had either taken on a job or more work hours to get by. Yet the optimism of students shines through as 71.0% felt this would not affect them finishing their degree with only 4.3% saying they were much less likely to finish.  I wish them well in the steep climb ahead.

In a supporting commentary for the report, Rebecca Montacute of the Sutton Trust concludes with “Students deserve better, and government needs to ensure all students, no matter their financial position or family background, have an equal chance to succeed at university.”  TEFS fully endorses this goal and there is little excuse for it not happening.

Secondly, there is the work of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation also out today that predicts a long-term problem of falling living standards for too many families. In ‘UK Poverty 2023: The essential guide to understanding poverty in the UK’ (full report .pdf), there is clear evidence that increasing poverty will send ripples across at least one generation.  Using data from 2020/21, they note that 13.4 million were in poverty with 3.9 million of those being children. They have seen that “The situation has worsened greatly since we first asked this set of questions in October 2021” as evidenced by their latest cost of living tracker results for winter 2022/23 reported in December 2022.  The escalating impact on children in the poorest households is truly shocking with little prospect of improvement. They will be the ones who find they are excluded from many educational advantages in time.

Back in July 2022, TEFS predicted that it would be a long cold winter for students.  This was not some mystical prediction but merely a hard statement of fact. In the meantime, it was expected that the government would increase its offer to students with more hardship funds now and higher maintenance loans in time. A support package was promised in parliament by the then Education Secretary, Kit Malthouse,  back in October 2022. By the end of the month, he was replaced by the current incumbent, Gillian Keegan, and nothing was on the horizon. There appears to be a lack of urgency despite most universities ramping up their support for students running into hardship.

This week saw the full extent pf the government’s indifference in England.  Other jurisdictions seem more in touch with what is needed. But it is difficult to pin down what is available in England by comparison because of how the funds are allocated. There is more support for students in hardship in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Wales, there is less call for hardship support. Students are offered a minimum maintenance grant of £1000 and can expect a 9.4 % increase in maintenance in 2023/24.

Yesterday, Sian Griffiths of the Sunday Times asked the question, “Expensive, miserable and endless strikes. Who’d be a student?”. This accompanied a readers’ poll: is a university degree worth the money?. Ouch!

A shortfall in maintenance finance.

There is less concern about repaying loans amongst students who are immediately challenged by a shortfall in their maintenance funds. However, others who are better off may be more concerned about loan repayments. With inflation pressing everyone hard, something radical was needed. This was the response,

Firstly, there was the announcement that the maximum maintenance loan in England would be increased by a meagre 2.8% in 2022/23. This is on top of 2.1% this year that was already falling well short of the inflation rate that has been running over 10% for some time. The loan is however heavily means tested and only those from households with an income £25,0000 per year will see the full amount. A large number will only see around half of that as parents are expected to pick up the shortfall (see ‘Student finance: how you’re assessed and paid 2023 to 2024 ‘)  It seems the idea that families will support their student children and can be squeezed further. The reality is probably very different as part-time jobs take even more strain.

Secondly, if things go wrong, there is the allocation of hardship funds for universities to release on a discretionary basis. Also, it is not a simple matter to access these funds quickly because of the evidential requirements (see Hardship funds: emergency cash at university – Save the Student October 2022).  Earlier this month, an additional ‘Cost of living boost for students’ of £15 million was announced “to top up their own hardship funds”.  But not all is what it seems.

Smoke and mirrors hiding cuts.

The announcement that an additional £15 million was to be granted to universities across England for hardship this year came as welcome news, albeit late for some already dropping out.  This was on top of the announcement last year that £261 million would be available.  On the face of it, this seems generous. But the actual hardship funds available are not clearly identified in the figures released.

The hardship allocation for 2022/23 announced in June 2022 is unclear and not listed separately. Instead, it is included under the totals for “Funding for student access and success”. This was a total of £313 million in 2021/22 but cut to £310 million in 2022/23 and includes a ‘student premium’ from which hardship funds must be diverted. This simply appears to be a cut in funding this year dressed up to look better. The Office for Students (OFS) guidance says that, “providers are permitted to divert more of their student premium funding to their hardship funds to support students”. This was reiterated by John Blake, the OfS Director for Fair Access and Participation, in the article, ‘Opportunity costs: The differential impact of cost-of-living pressures on students’ on the 18th of January 2023. There he fully acknowledged the financial pressure students were coming under but offered little by way of action other than more talk and wringing of hands with, “We will be publishing an Insight brief in the next couple of months summarising our cost-of-living polling and roundtable discussions”.

How much money is really going on hardship relief?

Back in 2019/20, the OfS earmarked hardship funds as part of an allocation for access and participation projected to 2025.  These were, £31.9 million (2020//21) £32.6 million (2021/22), £33.0 million (2022/23) and £33.4 million (2024/25). These figures might be expected to be closer to what is happening now but it is hard to tell.

The BBC used a freedom of information (FOI) to each university last year to partially get to the bottom of the real sums involved. In ‘Hardship funding for students doubled last year’ from July 2022, they reported a steep rise in hardship funds deployed to £121.2 million in 2020/21 from £61.2 the previous year. In 2018/19 it was even lower at £45.9 million.   There seems little doubt that the demand is rising beyond expectations to more heights in 2022/23.

Not the first time.

Back in September 2020, TEFS reported a similar sleight of hand when hardship funds were allocated with, ‘Government response to digital poverty, job losses, and student hardship: A £21 million cut to its support’.  The then Higher Education Minister, Michelle Donelan, 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 and amounted to a CUT in support of £21 million from the previous year. TEFS had already questioned this and earlier that summer Donelan replied to an open letter from TEFS that called for a “task force on student support”. She dismissed this and stated that £23 million per month from existing student premium funding could be used 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 mainly intended to be spread over IT, mental health, and other support besides hardship, so nothing new was on offer.

Later in September 2020 the Department for Education was quoted in the Guardian as saying “no funding would be provided to help meet the guidelines, and that additional costs would need to be met from existing budgets” An overall cut was dressed up as more but it was really diverted from other needs. This approach seems to have persisted.

The effect on students.

The report of a survey by the Office For national Statistics (ONS) back in November 2022 (‘Cost of living and higher education students, England’) provided hard evidence.  It highlighted a fast-growing crisis in student finance. The report was truly shocking with (91%) students either somewhat or very worried about the rising cost of living. Half had financial difficulties, with 15% saying they had major financial difficulties. This was picked up in December 2022 by Universities UK who confirmed that universities were releasing more in hardship support. Reports that they had already warned of this happening in September and October seemed to have fallen on deaf, possibly heedless, ears.

Dropping out.

There is currently a real danger that this is escalating as families fail to plug gaps in essentials. The evidence for this is mounting.

While HESA showed in March last year that the dropout rate of students had decreased slightly during the pandemic, the signs for this year are not looking good.  The percentage of students withdrawing from their university course remains low, but there is a worrying trend for 2022/23. The data from the Student Loan Company (SLC) also showed a similar trend in the pandemic year of  2020/21 with the numbers dropping to 14,421 from a previous year high 16,752. The total for last year had worsened to 18,451 across the UK as students returned to universities in person. This year was always going to be tougher and by the end of November 2022, the latest SLC data shows that 6,302 have withdrawn and is on course for a new high this year.

The reasons for this are likely to be complex and multi-layered as pointed out in, ‘A short guide to non-continuation in UK universities’ from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) in January 2021. A combination of greater financial pressure and less academic preparedness was always likely to sink an increasing number of students.

Times Higher Education observed in March last year that “economic uncertainty” meant students stayed with their courses over the pandemic.  The online offering also meant that they could work more flexibly from home and universities were understanding in what was expected in the circumstances. With that effect fast disappearing, the on-campus expectations and requirements will have added more cost and pressures to a worsening crisis. There is also the strong suspicion that accommodation costs are forcing more students to commute.  Students who cannot engage with their courses through no fault of their own will falter.

The other possibility is that learning loss in the pandemic years is now showing up as a problem, for both those within university degrees and in those arriving from school. Certainly that is happening, but universities are also very good a adapting and adjusting to the student cohorts coming through. So, this is less likely to be a major factor.

Nevertheless, this didn’t deter The Mail on the 8th of January with, ‘Rise in university dropouts due to inflated Covid A-levels and teacher assessed exams’. They put all of the ‘blame’ onto the effect of grade inflation citing their only evidence as the concern of one post-92 university.  Certainly, a dislocation between grades achieved and actual knowledge attained would be likely to have an effect regardless of the student’s ability.  But in my experience this can be addressed positively within university courses.

However, regardless of school examination grades achieved by students, there is also considerable concern amongst the government about the absolute ‘learning loss’ effect of the pandemic and lockdown (see ‘Learning during the pandemic: quantifying lost learning’). This would affect all students, poor and well off, as they entered this academic year and certainly have an effect if universities stick to prior knowledge expectations that are not realistic.  I doubt any university would have ignored this. I taught first year students for 35 years and often had to redraft course material to reflect the intake.

The last word.

Earlier this month, TEFS explored the increasing role of AI in education, citing the rise of bots such as ChatGTP, in  ‘The rise of AI for student assignments’.  It seems almost everyone is consulting the oracle to seek answers. Here are a few comments from ChatGTP on avoiding student hardship above normal budgeting.

“Working part-time: Many students find that working part-time while studying can help them to manage their finances”.

“Considering alternative options: Consider alternative options such as online learning, or attending a local university in order to save on accommodation costs”.

On part-time working in the UK, it observed that,

“The maximum number of hours a UK university student can work before it affects their grades is not specified. It can vary depending on the individual student’s ability to balance their workload and responsibilities. However, it is generally recommended that students limit their work hours to around 15-20 hours per week, in order to have enough time to focus on their studies and maintain a healthy work-life balance”.

When asked, ‘does having a part time job affect the grades of UK students at university?’, it answered with, “Having a part-time job while attending university can potentially affect a student’s grades. The amount of time and energy that a job requires can make it difficult for a student to balance their coursework and other responsibilities. Additionally, working long hours or at odd times can make it difficult for a student to attend classes or study effectively.”

Now all we need to do is get the government leadership to heed this simple and obvious message. Higher education is far from equal and fair with success predicated upon having more resources and time.

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

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