The Welsh Government’s announcement of £50 million to help universities and colleges deal with the economic fallout of Covid-19 has been long awaited, and gives institutions assurance for the next academic year.
After months of worry, uncertainty, and people forgetting to unmute their mics, we have made it to dry land at last – even if that land is only an island.
There’s a lot to welcome in the announcement. Unlike their colleagues at Whitehall, Welsh ministers have not imposed conditions on any institution seeking financial aid. The support for FE colleges too is positive, as it goes some way to recognising the impact lockdown has had on digitally excluded and vulnerable students.
And it is great to see a government supporting education – not for its role in employment, but because it is a public good, a social benefit and encourages individuals to see the world in new ways.
What about students?
But while institutions can bask in newfound certainty, the same can’t be said of the thousands of students whose finances have been thrown into disarray by this crisis. While “support for students facing hardship” is part of the remit of the £27m HE Recovery Fund, there’s no indication that additional funding to top up institutions’ hardship funds is guaranteed or ring fenced.
Hardship funds have seen a sharp rise in applications during lockdown, with institutions having to fundraise or top-slice senior management pay to keep them topped up.
The lack of a ring fence means student hardship will have to compete against staff retention and project funding when institutions are bidding for support. With the sector facing such a dramatic funding shortfall, it’s not hard to envisage student hardship falling down the priority list.
The reasons for student hardship are well-rehearsed by now: part-time work has dried up, family income has fallen, and many students have paid thousands of pounds on rent and bills for properties unoccupied since March. With a second spike likely, there’s a real risk that these issues will play out once again over the winter months.
Student hardship won’t go away as the immediate health crisis subsides – it will be a long-term consequence of the economic one.
Students need stability
NUS Wales has been working since the outset of the pandemic to give students some semblance of stability in these difficult times. Alongside our campaigning for a UK-wide Student Safety Net, we’ve also been making the case to Welsh Government for a student hardship fund and the introduction of notice periods for students who can no longer occupy their accommodation because of the pandemic.
Putting money in students’ pockets at a time where their income has all but disappeared is the best way to safeguard those facing financial hardship, and show students that they haven’t been forgotten.
We recognise the limited budget the Welsh Government is working with, which has only been exacerbated by the lack of consequential funding flowing from England. However, we have seen governments elsewhere in the UK take more decisive and timely action on student hardship, acting and responding to the needs of students shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic rather than over four months after lockdown was imposed. In Scotland £11.4m has been allocated to student hardship, along with £5.6m in Northern Ireland.
Diamonds aren’t forever
The Diamond package, which NUS Wales continues to support, does give Welsh-domiciled students generous maintenance support during term-time. But Diamond was never designed to mitigate the economic impacts of a pandemic, and of course there are many students in Wales who aren’t entitled to Diamond in the first place.
Those students, from other nations of the UK and further afield, have so far seen no extra support put in place from government. This is despite Wales desperately needing these students to choose to come to Wales to study – whether virtually or in person – and attracting students being a key tenet of the Welsh Government’s mission to boost ‘brand Wales’ internationally.
The needs of the sector and the needs of students are not interchangeable. Too often the debate reduces students to units of economic value, to be shifted and assigned and measured and surveyed. They’re not. They’re people who have lost jobs, lost financial security, are trapped in expensive housing contracts, and are facing a choice between returning to university and living in flats they signed contracts on in January, or staying at home and avoiding being caught in a second wave.
The challenges facing the sector are desperate and real – we have no wish to pit student hardship against the possibility of redundancies or course closures. Both are pressing issues, both need addressing, but they are not the same. The Welsh Government prides itself on being the most forward-thinking government of the UK and we are often the envy of our student counterparts across the UK. While we know these are difficult times, students in Wales need security that only a government can provide – they need that safety net.