The government’s bung to university students doesn’t go nearly far enough
The APPG for Students has found multiple gaps in support for university students in Covid-19 | Illustration by Tracy Worrall
The financial and educational deficits facing university students in the pandemic are far greater than many realise – they need a multi-faceted support package
The pandemic has hit everyone, but the impact on students has been profound – from missing out on face-to-face teaching, to being prevented from using accommodation for which they are paying. Universities have worked hard to offer the best possible teaching, but it could never match the normal offer.
This generation, along with those in school, will be affected by the pandemic throughout their lifetimes – and will be paying off the national debt longer than anyone else – so we must respond to their concerns. As calls from students grew louder after January’s national lockdown prevented students from returning to campus, the APPG for Students launched an inquiry into what support they needed. We reviewed submissions from hundreds of students, sector groups, and landlords.
There has perhaps been a misconception that because students are still receiving their tuition and maintenance loans, they have not felt the economic shock of the pandemic. The reality is different for many students who can only fund their living costs through part-time jobs, largely in hospitality and retail, and through family support – both hugely affected by coronavirus.
Many students are also now paying rent for properties that they can’t access – and for which they took contracts after being promised ‘blended learning’ this academic year. Universities’ best intentions were overcome as Covid-19’s ‘second wave’ took hold in the autumn and teaching moved largely or solely online.
Hardship may be the immediate issue – but lost education will have a long-term impact
To tackle these issues, our inquiry concluded that government should invest substantial sums in a much more comprehensive and accessible ‘Coronavirus Hardship Fund’, at least doubling the student premium funds available in a normal year. Universities should target the funds for rental costs, lost income, digital poverty and other unexpected needs.
After we published our report, the government announced £50m for hardship – or £25 per student in England – which falls well short of the funding we were seeking, or that made available by the devolved administrations. In Wales, support is worth over £300 per student, while in Scotland it is around £80. Responding to student concerns, our report argued that hardship support should be accessible, with only essential information needed to access help, more like the Furlough Scheme than the bureaucratic hoops of ‘pre-Covid’ funds.
Hardship may be the immediate issue – but lost education will have a long-term impact. Filling the gaps in lost learning will be more useful for students than reducing tuition fees, providing the education they need now, rather than reducing their debt when they are in their 50s.
Therefore we recommended that government set up a ‘Covid Student Learning Remediation Fund’ – to support universities in providing the experiences missed – but unfortunately the recent £50m announcement makes no reference to the educational deficit caused by the pandemic. Our proposal would replace lost teaching, access to specialist facilities, fieldtrips, group work, resources and more to help students build skills and portfolios – particularly those with qualifying practical elements to their courses.
Research students have faced problems too, from accessing laboratories to completing fieldwork. We recommend that UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) studentships be extended where needed to allow research to be completed to usual high standards. Increased hardship and lost learning funds could be used to help those who are funded in other ways.
Our recommendations require significant government spending (although not in the context of the overall cost of support through the pandemic) but students, universities and landlords have all incurred additional financial costs too. The future of the sector depends on getting this right now. I was struck by one student who told us that students’ “voices don’t seem to be being heard”. We must now listen – and act.
Paul Blomfield is Labour MP for Sheffield Central and chair of the APPG for Students