Why are we excluding thousands of students from access to hardship funding?

Kris Sheard is SU President at the University of Buckingham Students' Union

The impacts of the pandemic are indiscriminate – testing the resilience of students’ unions, universities and students alike.

The universities’ minister recognised the “unprecedented scale of disruption” the pandemic has caused, and in such “recognition” has chosen to release £70 million of hardship funding in pursuit of the “prioritisation of education” and “the well-being of students”.

At a time where hard working students are having to cover multiple accommodation fees, unable to rely on part time work to fund their education or access key educational facilities – to this end, this was a welcome development, and highlighted the need to commit to tackling such issues.

But that support is only on offer only if you’re a student registered at the “right kind” of provider.

Approval ratings

The government has chosen to disadvantage some students in their provision of welfare-based funding – based on the registration status of their higher education provider. Students studying at any one of the 69 providers registered in the “approved” category, most of which are small or specialist providers, were excluded from accessing this £70 million fund.

These students are much more likely to be studying part time, to be mature learners or to be from widening participation backgrounds. Choices over educational institutions are often a by-product of circumstance. Government hardship provision – during a global pandemic – was not at the forefront of applicants’ minds regarding their enrolment to such institutions, the same being true for all applicants. And flexibility across the educational spectrum is vital, ensuring that education remains as inclusive as possible for those wanting to partake within it.

So we were hugely disappointed that the government opted to deliver its financial support package for disbursement via the usual student premium funding mechanism that OfS allocates to providers in the Approved (Fee Cap) category. While we understand that it offers the advantage of an established mechanism which can be deployed quickly, it suffers from the significant flaw that it is not universally available to all students who might need support during these extraordinary times.

Stretch goals

The government is depriving these providers and their students a cushion at a time where mental health resources are stretched to their limit and digital poverty is at an all-time high. At my university alone, hardship applications increased by 300% from Q1 to Q2 in 2020 as lockdown restrictions hit students hard. We have been tackling a range of issues, from digital poverty to such basic things as food essentials, but there are limits to what we are able to support and to what extent.

Emergency funding for students should be for all students, ensuring our future generations have access to the tools by which to affirm their career paths, and preventing skill shortages for those industries that have been affected most gravely through this tough period.

This is not discussion over culpability, but highlights how students studying at these providers continue to be overlooked. The government promised a level playing field for these institutions and their students. This doesn’t look like it – in fact it looks like a failure from government to consider the broad spectrum of higher education and college provision.

Above and beyond

In those discussions, we’ve raised concerns that students at independent providers have suffered disproportionately from the new lockdown restrictions, owing to the high level of practical teaching on their courses and the specialist facilities that are needed for independent study- emphasising the need in accessing this hardship funding to help facilitate on-going extra-mural teaching.

Many providers have gone above and beyond in supporting remote learning for every element which is possible to deliver in this format, while planning for catch-up opportunities for tuition and facilities access in person as soon as government guidance allows for it.

NUS, Independent HE and 35 of these institutions representing some 35,000 students recently wrote to the minister Michelle Donelan MP asking her to look with urgency at this disadvantage. We implore the minister to respond to this letter and consider these disadvantaged students. Although we have not yet received a response, we hope that this joint plea will encourage the minister to do her utmost in preserving the educational experience for these students as she has done for all those at approved fee cap providers.

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