Since the Covid-19 crisis hit, both the Government and regulatory bodies have been handing out all sorts of reassuring words to students.
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan’s letter “to students” last week won’t have been read by many of them, and the few Middlesex students I know that have seen it haven’t been impressed.
In it she said that student wellbeing is “at the heart of discussions” that she’s been having with universities. That might be true, but since universities won’t say it, student leaders should. Right now universities are being asked to do much too much, much too soon – and student wellbeing is suffering.
And so instead of continuing with the tactic of piling the pressure onto individual university departments, the Government needs to act over Easter to change the way it’s thinking about Covid-19 and students.
Assessing the damage
In that letter, the Government said it was “very aware” of worries about final exams, and promised OfS guidance “shortly” on ways to complete studies covering teaching, continued learning and assessment. “It is important that providers support you”, she said, “and enable you to leave with qualifications that have real value and that reflect your hard work”.
But hardly anything has come from OfS or QAA, and in most universities there’s been a frantic debate about assessment without real guidance. In an effort to get some clarity to students to before Easter, almost everyone has announced some kind of “no detriment” or “safety net” policy. But by the sounds of my chats to SUs around the country, many of these policies have produced more questions than answers.
There are academics that have effectively gone AWOL that need to put in place remaining teaching so there’s something to assess on. There’s Disabled students not getting the adjustments they need or answers to their questions. There’s international students self-isolating in HMOs being threatened with eviction. There’s students whose stuff needed for assessments is locked in housing a hundred miles away or in university buildings that are closed.
There’s student parents who are thinking about lots of things – but checking emails every day on the intricacies of degree algorithms when they’re on hold to the DWP for 12 hours isn’t near the top of the list. And there are so many students who don’t have broadband, or share a computer in a crowded home.
These students need a proper pause, but if we don’t fund it and any of these students drop out, it won’t be their fault – so they need the Government to step in and guarantee that every penny of extra costs they might face completing their course – either later in the summer or later in the year – will be met.
Just telling universities to sort out all of these problems is inefficient and unfair – especially because the universities that do best in widening participation are going to have less money to go around for each student.
What we need is state intervention, now. The Government should be requiring the internet companies to upgrade and remove the caps from connections, and asking the hardware companies to run a national laptop loan scheme for learners. It should be legislating to allow students to end housing contracts now and require landlords to look after those that can’t leave.
It should be re-centralising and increasing support for disabled students, and should commit to supporting every landlord in the country to pay for students’ belongings to be sent back to students who are now “at home” – or face the prospect of thousands of students’ parents criss-crossing the country in the middle of a lock down.
Covid-19 has hit students hard. The shut-down specifically targets the bits of the economy that my members rely on for jobs: restaurants/bars, tourism, and other service industries. There might be a surge of temporary jobs in the health industry and supermarkets but it’s not come close to making up for the huge loss of income faced by many students.
Some have been lucky enough to be able to escape some of their costs, rent being the biggest one – but so many haven’t. Telling us that we’re going to get Term 3 maintenance loans on time really is the very least the Government can do, and saying that universities should “administer accommodation provision in a fair manner” when they don’t control the behaviour of private landlords really isn’t enough.
What students need right now is help. They need to know that if their parents’ income situation has changed, their loan entitlement will change right now. They need the total available to be increased – the “parental contribution” element of the student loan calculation could just be abolished overnight. They need to know they won’t be evicted if they need to stay in housing and won’t be in court if they can’t afford term three’s rent. They need their university to be given cash – ringfenced for additional hardship, not told to “find the money” when some are already laying off staff because of financial worries.
There are very few students who don’t “need” a top up to their maintenance loan right now – but the good news for Government is that the ones that do well will pay more of it back. And the Government should immediately suspend the rule that stops full-time students from claiming Universal Credit for the duration of this crisis – because everyone deserves a safety net.
And we really do need to guarantee financial support for all postgraduate students. Now.
One of the stupidest things has happened is to charities. Loads of them – including students’ unions – have had to “furlough” staff because of a major and dramatic loss of either commercial trading income or donor income.
Once staff are “furloughed” they’re not allowed to work for that organisation. This means that thousands of staff in charities everywhere are at home doing nothing when they could be working. The Chancellor could help immediately by allowing any organisation with a charity number to let furloughed staff volunteer to help that charity’s beneficiaries. It would cost him nothing and instantly do amazing things both for students that rely on SUs, but also for society at large that relies on charities to provide essential services. I think we can trust charities not to “abuse” the scheme.
In lots of universities I talk to, teaching and learning and student support have been the priorities – but what about graduate employment? Students graduating now face a really bleak future as every major graduate recruiter looks to cut back on their hiring.
First, we need universities to pool resources to support students based where they are now, not where they study. If you study in Manchester but are going to be in Hendon for the next 6 months then you should be able to access employability support from Middlesex University, and vice versa. I’d also like to see this kind of pooling extended to student support and wellbeing services. This is no time for competition.
We also need the NHS and its supply chains to be supported to open up to student graduate labour for at least the next year. We need generous funding for PGT opportunities next year. And we need a big and bold graduate employment initiative – employers that take on graduates need signals of subsidies now. We can’t have a generation of graduates faced with unemployment in July, with so many skills that our country needs going to be waste.
Mental health and loneliness
Finally, we need to put student mental health right at the top of our list. It was a crisis before Covid-19, and right now in the inboxes of student officers around the country there is evidence that that crisis is worsening.
Students are lonely, depressed and anxious. Those with specific conditions have had what little care they were getting ripped away. Counselling appointments are being cancelled everywhere. A major injection of resource to universities that allows them to ramp up mental health support for both next term and the coming summer would be a drop in the Government’s ocean, but a very wise investment long term.
It is also worth reflecting on the stress being put on the incredible health care students who have stopped their studies in favour of being thrust into hospitals. Ironically, many of them are still paying fees – and the nursing students are a generation that missed out on bursaries, which their predecessors and successors received. So how about a cash payment and fee debt remission to those medical and healthcare students who are now on the front line of this battle equivalent to the bursary they didn’t get. It feels like the least we can do is to remove the financial stress.
There are two other groups of students that need the kind of support that can only be offered nationally. There are students in halls of residence right now who are now socially distancing in often very small bedrooms with shared facilities. If the advice for them not to leave their rooms to return remains in place for the coming months, they need specific support to deal with the challenges they face. And we know that many students will be facing bereavement, often away from home and their usual support network. A co-ordinated response to providing support for those students will also be critical.
Stop passing the buck
Too often, the Government’s response so far has been to pass the buck onto universities. The minister’s letter leaves lots of the hard decisions and the critical work to universities. We already know that that represents a fundamental unfairness – because universities who have the most tend to have students who require support the least.
This already leads to gross inequality in the size and availability of financial support for students. It cannot be allowed to also create an even more gross inequality in how students are supported through these unprecedented times. Above all, if we are to safeguard the students who need support the most but are at universities who have the least, we need the government to offer strong leadership and practical solutions – rather than indecision and warm words.