The future has to be affordable and we’ll need to fight for it

The most jarring aspect of the new reality that Covid-19 has created is the deep uncertainty of it all.

We have all been working on models and scenarios that a few words uttered by a minister during the daily briefing can make obsolete. We’ve witnessed students frantically leaving campuses, not knowing when they would fully be able to come back. This first few weeks of the lockdown have felt like battling an invisible enemy.

But as the dust settles and we enter the transition phase, there are a few things that we, as student representatives, are sure to be facing: a sound and inclusive infrastructure for recording lectures will no longer be a luxury or a frivolous measure to serve lazy students, but a necessity. Capital projects will need to be put on hold and campus master plans completely re-invented. Significant investment will need to be made in distance learning and online courses. And we will need to ensure institutions focus on students’ mental health, which has definitely been impacted by the crisis.

Money worries

There’s another certainty that stands out, stark and bleak – institutions and the sector as a whole will face large and long-lasting financial struggles. Even institutions that have relatively healthy reserves are bound to face short and long term financial crises. Of particular importance is the scenario for non-EEA students, who pay disproportionately higher fees than their EEA counterparts and whose absence from campuses will deepen the financial losses to institutions.

There’s a danger we lose sight of students, who face unparalleled financial hardship due to Covid-19. They are more likely to be employed on zero-hour contracts, making access to furlough pay trickier and tangled in bureaucratic processes. And a lot of students’ families will suffer beyond the short term due to job losses, and the wider economic impact of coronavirus.

NUS’ call for the Government to create a £60m national student hardship fund is welcome, and it is needed. SUs and university staff members are working around the clock on ensuring institutional hardship funds are replenished and are operating quickly despite the spike in demand. Given the impact of coronavirus across the sector, it is essential that the Government steps in to support students throughout this time. If the Trump administration can do it then the UK Government certainly should.

From crisis to coping

Of course, all of these responses are rapid, knee-jerk reactions to the immediate impacts of Covid-19, fundamental in a crisis. But as a sabbatical officer who will take up the role of President in June, I will around for the transition to a “new normal”. Having campaigned heavily on the subject of affordability, I expect that the topic will matter more than ever – and SUs should start working together on both a regional and national basis to ensure affordability is at the forefront of SU strategies in the long term.

This is because the effects we are starting to experience in this crisis phase will last well into the transition phase and beyond.

Students paying the price

First, if we’re not careful, students will pay the price for universities who have haemorrhaged money from all corners – as prices across campus increase to fight off deficits, pay off loans, and attempt to restore financial stability. These are prices of student essentials – university-owned student halls; eateries and cafes; retail prices; gyms, and so on.

Indirectly, students and their experience will also be affected by a potential reduction in the quality of their student experience, particularly if there are significant cuts to SU funding, or services like student support or careers. Universities right now are asking departments to make deep cuts to ensure financial viability.

As prices rise, incomes will fall. Prolonged social distancing will hit leisure and hospitality hard – and guess who works in those industries to pay the rent and buy their books? With large venues possibly unable to open at least until the end of the calendar year, and smaller venues already saying that distancing would render them unviable, there will be a huge drop in demand for casual workers – which in universities are likely to be students.

The scenario in the private rented housing sector looks just as uncertain and gloomy. Rent prices have been skyrocketing across the country for years, and a considerable number of private landlords have relieved students of their contracts – this is likely to have a knock-on effect on prices next year, particularly with the uncertainty of when the autumn term is likely to begin physically.

And public transport services have faced a huge income loss – prices may need to go up considerably to keep providers in business.

Research shows that personal finances (tuition fees aside) were a source of worry for a majority of students even before Covid-19, with maintenance loans unable to cover for all the hidden costs students face when they come to university. Part-time employment and contribution from families is going to decrease as the country faces economic uncertainty. Financial worries, therefore, are likely to jump to the top of the list for incoming and continuing students. As the realities start to hit families, we shouldn’t be surprised by deferrals, drop outs and massive mental health issues for those that hang on.

Affordability as a central goal

It is therefore fair to assume that ensuring student life is affordable is going to be a major task that SUs will need to take on in the coming months. It poses a tricky question: how can we ensure affordability for services on campuses knowing universities are facing unparalleled financial difficulties? Were universities to step up and ensure price locks on services, which departments would face further cuts to balance the losses? Officers will need to have these questions in mind as SU trustees, and more so for those officers who are or will be governors of their universities.

Of course this means that as well as making sure that costs aren’t passed on, we have to lobby for national action from the Government. That might mean moments where our representation seems to be set against institutional survival – but we can’t let the financial crisis facing the sector translate into an even deeper one for students.

It also means an eye on the medium term. The calls for action and funding we are seeing at the moment are meant to stop the ship from sinking right now – and that’s right, for now. But as SUs, we also need to have our eye firmly set on September and beyond. There is a real risk that a “full university experience”, whatever it will look like, will become a reality for an even smaller number of financially privileged students, deepening existing inequalities – or go altogether.

Whilst bailouts and national hardship funds are fundamental to provide safety to providers and students alike, the impact of coronavirus is going to last for years to come. Without a radical agenda for post-Covid 19 student life, and an unprecedented injection of funds into the sector to maintain the affordability of key aspects of student life in the long run, the new normal we risk creating is one that will shut out sections of the student population that we have championed for years.

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