One of the things I’m often struck by is the extent to which quite senior people in higher education seem to rely almost exclusively on adopting and copying from other universities when addressing identified problems.
I can understand the risk aversion, and wanting not to waste money or time – but it’s a mode of leadership that just won’t do when the issues or crises are new and rapid. Perhaps even worse is the tendency to rely almost exclusively on adopting and copying from other universities that are like their university.
If nothing else it betrays the imagined self-image of universities as things that can learn, hypothesise, think, develop, pilot, test and invent. It’s senior management by flicking through the Ikea catalogue, and it’s not really good enough.
The sad part is that for many, their career skills and passion for academic research ought to provide a framework through which to convene the necessary R&D. But once in the big chairs, those skills appear to be wasted.
The (social) anxiety and engagement problems facing students en masse this year, for example, have had so many evidence points this past year as to be undeniable. But where were the creative solutions? How can a sector talk itself into pride over the “online pivot” if it can convene no answers for a problem like this?
I feel the same way over cost of living – an issue on the minds of every SU I’ve interacted with this summer season. If you’re a senior bod and the SU asks what your plan is, and your answer is either “what are other universities doing” or “we do need to know what works”, don’t you worry that your salary is too high?
Someone needs to do something
Like so many problems that face students, cost of living is one of those where it’s possible (and perfectly sensible) to blame others, to believe that individual ideas will make little difference, and to assert that while something must be done, you surely don’t mean by me.
It’s also one fraught with danger. Remember when Ovo Energy advised customers to keep their heating bills low by “having a cuddle with your pets”, eating “hearty bowls of porridge” and “doing a few star jumps”? Or that time a Doctoral Training Partnership said that PhD students should consider “selling Avon products”, doing “pet-sitting” and “joining clinical trials” to cope with the cost of living crisis? You must remember. It was last week.
However well meaning, suggestions on staying warm or topping up income can make it sound like we think it’s OK that people are going cold or don’t have sufficient income in the first place. I still can’t quite believe how little sector pressure has been brought to bear over the fact that as a low-income group, students seem to be almost exclusively missing from all four governments’ schemes to alleviate the crisis. It reminds us that when a problem is critical, even if lobbying behind the schemes is going on, the lack of visibility of that lobbying makes those suffering think that the people that are supposed to care in reality don’t.
As well as visible, empathetic action, this is also going to need coordination. We really do need all key players in a room at regular intervals between now and September. The difference between the sense of urgency over 2020 summer pandemic planning and this summer’s costs of living crisis is palpable. We need some quite tough, “critical problem” leadership – with a focus on getting things done rather than debate or determining causes. And yes, already approved budgets might need to be adjusted. Projects might have to be dropped.
Ultimately, though, what’s needed in a crisis like this are ideas – and so I took to Twitter the other day to source some. Some are more realistic than others. Some make perfect sense for some providers, some less so. Some could (and should) be worked on this afternoon, some may take a while. But five caveats before we get into them.
- The first is that I’ve dismissed political hobby horses. I’ll be the first to agree that some senior salaries are out of kilter, or that there’s too many shiny buildings or whatever. But this kind of political point-scoring won’t help students in the year ahead. It’s comforting blaming marketisation, or the government, or Brexit, or Covid or whatever, but it doesn’t pay the gas bill.
- The second is that from the perspective of quality, something might have to give. Some things that we’ve become proud of might need to go. If a “Fibchester University 100” student engagement project costing £60k could be closed in favour of a food bank, let’s do it. If the biscuits in the meetings can be replaced with some free breakfasts for the poorest students, it’s time. If employing more students as baristas in the coffee bar or data processors in registry means compromising on service standards – so be it. Students need the money.
- The third is that from the perspective of widening access, it might be time to shift resource from outreach to financial support. Of course those with departments and teams and projects are going to find ways to demonstrate that the former “works”. And yes I know that OfS is demanding you look in the rear view mirror with a ruler. But is there anything worse than spending the money getting them in only to resolve to then not support them to get on?
- The fourth is that I’ve screened out the government giving or loaning students more money. Of course we should raise the maintenance loan, the stipend and disabled students allowance. But we are where we are.
- The fifth is that I’ve screened out the ideas that seem to be designed to relieve the need for students to come onto campus. I’ve been suspicious all year of the suggestion that you make campuses more accessible by facilitating students not to come to them. But more than that, I’m struck by (former SU officer) Martin Lewis arguing that this winter, we may need “warm banks” (the equivalent of “food banks”) where people who can’t afford heating are invited to spend their days at no cost with heating.
In what world should 1,000 commuter students on the edge of your area all be trying to heat their empty family homes during the day this winter? And for students in HMOs, remember they’ll either be trying to afford the bills themselves, or will have a landlord controlling their “all inclusive” bills by turning down the temperature via an app sat in a Costa counting their pension pot. We ought to be bussing them in to sit somewhere communal and warm – not leaving them out on their own watching their breath as they type out an assignment in gloves.
Here’s the 100, then. Please do add some in the comments section below if you have any.
100 ideas for alleviating the impacts
- Everyone that runs a service on campus that charges students is mandated to have a range of options, one of which is a budget option (budget coffee, budget gym slots).
- Every academic that maintains a reading list is asked to cut some titles from that list and/or make clear that purchase of the whole list is unwise and unnecessary.
- Even better, ensure everything on any list is possible to access for online, in the library and/or for free.
- Every university commits to increasing the number of seats in areas where you can sit somewhere warm and hang out on campus by 20 percent by September.
- More SUs should buy the licence that allows you to show old films as long as not for profit/charge – cinema nights are communal, social, warm and not massively hard for socially awkward/anxious.
- Develop a proper, coordinated student jobs strategy. Nobody in any professional services should be able to advertise a job without soul searching over whether that job could, on balance, be done by a student – even with a compromise on quality.
- A revival of 1980s-style NUS Card student discount squads. 2 or 3 student staff are paid for the rest of the summer to scour the city for discounts and beg businesses to have them or make them deeper. No advertising sales for a handbook, just “please offer a discount”.
- Loads more rental of things. Get 20 students on a zoom call and ask them what they but that they would have preferred to rent. SU supported to facilitate rentals (v common in Scandinavia…)
- Let’s see some surfaced visibility on any cost centre that has charges to see the budgeted surplus. Governing bodies need to ask how important it is that that surplus is hit given the see-saw with the charges in the coming academic year.
- Design a student costs and income audit and require every student to complete it before enrolling.
- Tell students with railcards that visit London – they should get a plastic Oyster, they can load their 1/3 discount onto it by asking a person at any station to sort it for them.
- All the social norming that people that have been doing work on alcohol, EDI, consent etc – do some on costs. Let’s try to convince rich kids that the seminar group going to Pret for lunch is a nasty thing to do (harder if some bright spark installed a Pret on campus).
- Make very clear to international students what their employment rights are, and where they can go if they have concern, in a way that convinces them that by seeking help their visa won’t be at risk.
- Every international office to make clear to incoming international students that the amount the home office is saving you can live on is probably an inadequate figure this coming autumn.
- Every university and SU catering outlet has to join Too Good To Go, the app that lets customers rescue unsold food from shops and restaurants to save it from going to waste.
- UUK lobbies BEIS, the Levelling up department and energy industry bodies over incentives to put energy efficiency measures into student houses – pronto.
- Ban the use of admin and food & beverage temping agencies on campus. Use the 20 percent in VAT leakage to facilitate the employment of students in those jobs directly.
- Allocate space to a student repair shop. Recruit students who can repair things and collaborate with local traders who do so.
- Let students cook for each other on campus. Open up kitchens that allow it. Be determined to have health and safety support that facilitates rather than discourages it. Encourage societies to do it. Bake offs, cook offs, you name it. Nibbles day. Buffet week. Let them eat cake day. Muffin hour.
- Organise deliberately facilitated walking bus clubs with actual times and chat topics so students meet people too.
- Don’t require anything to be handed in on paper. Ever.
- Buy and rescue more laptops for loan.
- Never throw out a laptop – stick Chrome OS on it and give it to a student.
- Email recent graduates now asking for donations of course specific stuff – lab coats, Bunsen burners, etc etc.
- Hold a fortnightly car boot sale on campus (without the cars).
- Make it so that room booking requests get approved 50 percent faster if they include giving free food to students that come to an event.
- No more fines for anything. Disciplinary fines allow the rich to abuse people. We’ve seen decent legal advice suggesting halls behaviour fines are probably unlawful (tenant fees act) even if craftily derived from student disciplinary procedures. Ban them all.
- No more “optional” trips where you can pass the course without going but you feel terrible because everyone else bonded and had a lovely time.
- Facilitate some sessions where students get to know each other in classrooms. It’s cheaper than them having to do that in cafes, pubs or clubs – and more inclusive too.
- Pay teacher candidates (student teachers) for the labour they are doing in classrooms.
- Stop asking PhDs to pay their employer to be employed?
- Publicly pressure funding bodies to increase PhD student stipends and maintenance loans.
- See if it’s possible to provide basic breakfasts throughout the year – especially in winter.
- Seek and train volunteers to do heat-audits on houses and offer advice to residents and landlords on improvements (quick wins and long term). Invest in some IR/heat cameras to use.
- Work out how much it actually costs for a student to be a member of clubs and societies and think about how to show and reduce those, e.g. if it only costs £10 to join a club but you need equipment and travel to training and and and then it’s not £10 is it?
- Give every student a box of useful things – a cookbook, a notepad, a reusable bottle and mug, etc
- Work with local councils to highlight free places/things nearby, e.g. non-university libraries as warm places to study, with good WIFI plus eBook rentals and other bits.
- Use university/union minibuses to help people move house. Make them available for students to book for group trips (taking steps to address driver eligibility).
- Make university rooms available for storage over the summer instead of pricy commercial storage.
- Lobby the government to remove the self-employment restrictions on international students so they can take freelance work. This also makes it much less complicated for entrepreneurship units to deal with international students with great business ideas.
- Affordable laundrette. Washing lines for students.
- More social spaces. Daughter had kitchen/diner for her flat but no central space to socialise with other flats in the block. Took longer to make friends than necessary and involved costs of going to clubs etc to meet people.
- Get a plug in induction hob, pressure cooker and a microwave oven to do all cooking.
- Buy food in bulk if possible.
- Provide students facilities to brew their own beer and wine.
- Make sanitary products free. It makes so much difference. The costs of sanitary products are so high and it cuts deep into our pockets every month. Most organisations do that, universities should start doing it too.
- Facilitate book swaps/sales (inc non-academic).
- There should be somewhere for students to get hot water and microwaves so they can heat their own food.
- Allow students to use sports facilities to shower and wash for free.
- Repair and rent out bicycles.
- Price match the campus shop on campus to the cheapest local on 100 key items.
- Students chuck in as little as 20p and then all cook/serve a meal en mass together challenge. Bulk buying veg/vegan meals is very cheap, cooking together is fun/social/warm and means they won’t be using energy at home.
- More support for med/health/social work students travelling to placements and waiting months for NHS reimbursements- car share/rental (for more rural locations)? Paid for bus/train passes? Interest free loans for travel costs?
- Offer support for student sex workers and those in the gig economy – they need the work and the support, not moralising.
- “Best before” date food sales at campus food outlets at knockdown prices (you were going to throw that salad tub out anyway).
- Set and enforce a maximum price for hot meals three times a day on campus.
- Make clear that running out of money counts as an extenuating circumstance this year. It’s not like you were expecting that gas bill, was it?
- Universities could build relationships with residents neighbouring their university accommodation. Eg install electric car chargers on campus that residents can also use and pay for with profit subsidising student travel?
- Make it someone’s job to work out how many bed spaces are available in your area in different price bands. Use that to determine your clearing cap.
- If that sounds hard or “unrealistic”, consider what it’ll feel like when a student from a low income background is recruited to your university to live away from home during clearing, and try harder.
- Unis could negotiate with their energy providers to create a uni energy scheme. Bigger volume, guaranteed/simple payments by uni – lots in it for energy suppliers.
- Students in private accommodation apply to uni/provide proof of address to transfer over to uni energy scheme as their provider. Supplier charges uni bulk lower rates for energy – uni pays – then students pay the uni.
- Cheap day rate for halls so students can use halls for short periods when needed.
- Use pay it forward at campus cafes and bookshops.
- Hand over empty retail spaces for student run thrift / swap shop.
- Carry out a course materials audit and either rewrite programmes to reduce them or organise bulk-buying to get the costs down.
- Setting up credit unions to provide no-questions-asked small sums to tide students over and lessen the risk of getting dodgy loans and incurring extra costs like overdraft fees.
- Do deals with arts and tourism bodies in the area for free or discounted tickets for students.
- Provide a guarantor service for international students.
- Train student staff to offer a souped up housing advocacy service to enable students to get cold homes fixed, damp eradicated and help get deposits back.
- Something akin to community recycle Facebook pages, provide free transportation of bulky items. Living in a university town, there are complaints about stuff in the street just left at end of year.
- Being honest about what is essential for studies – book, equipment etc and other resources.
- There has to be somewhere on campus every day where you can get free coffee served by student volunteers.
- Install solar panels on all university buildings and student accomodation to reduce energy bills. Demand private landlords do the same or cap rent if they want to advertise their properties through university channels.
- Introduce academic credit where every student has to serve other students via a project, service or volunteer opportunity.
- Heavily subsidised childcare / vouchers
- Free printer credits as standard.
- Review hardship fund policies to ensure disadvantaged groups are not penalised for just existing (disabled students often hit with the “unnecessary” expenditure stuff).
- Make accessing discretionary funds less intrusive and based on circumstances, rather than full scrutiny of bank statements etc would be welcome. Fine for a kid, but matures have multiple accounts, different priorities etc.
- Commuter kitchens.
- Free toast.
- Low cost/free eye testing, dentists.
- No TV licence fee for students – most won’t need one or can use parents’ licence as long as using a mobile (not plugged in) device. Many don’t know this.
- Some sort of free/pay-what-you-can kitchen would be good. Serves lunch and dinner, only one thing on the menu each day, very basic, healthy, and allergen free meals: lentils/rice with vegetables sort of thing
- Grocery co-operatives. Pay a small fee, get a weekly big shop. E.g. pay £10 a week, get £25 worth of food (the rest is subsidised).
- Student allotments.
- There are trainee counsellor/psychotherapists who require practice hours in order to qualify. They are already far along their studies by the time they see face to face clients. Set up a service for free counselling to take care of the students’ mental health.
- Make all course readings OERs and/or make sure required readings are available at library/online. Make use of fair use/fair dealing if a chapter of a book is absolutely necessary to use in a course. Work with your copyright officer on campus if unsure.
- Ring-fence a portion of commercial income specifically for co-op initiatives / social entrepreneurship among students and/or for grant-giving.
- Facilitate clubs/societies to run cheaper community focussed/pot luck events in unused warm spaces in the evenings.
- Get every student signed up to the NHS Low Income Scheme and any other benefit they could be entitled to from the government or institution (e.g., DSA, PIP/ADP, Universal Credit).
- Tell applicants now if they’re about to be able to access MS Office for free.
- Kill off monopolies on campus. Where there are, take action to pass on more of the commission. If you would uncomfortable revealing how much of the profit you’re raking in via your laundrette supplier or graduation gowning firm, reduce that amount.
- Allow students to split costs across the year more in line with student finance/salary payments. So many things (gym memberships etc) have to be paid upfront in September.
- Many universities could be doing a lot more to negotiate favourable season ticket rates on bus services for their students which cover term time rather than paying full whack for adult annual passes or more expensive monthly passes.
- Cover more course materials costs and students have to buy them separately.
- Build “how expensive was taking part in this module” into end-of-module review processes. Take action off the back of feedback.
- Provide informal social opportunities (with takeaway refreshments) outside of the classroom, as a free alternative to those Pret after-seminar catch ups.
- Lobby for an uplift to the 28p per mile students are able to claim for travel to NHS placements (why is this different to the 45p per mile HMRC recommends?), and ensure the reimbursement times are reasonable.
- Develop hardship funding for international students and make clear the circumstances under which it can be accessed.
- Scrap un-refundable master’s deposits. They’re cruel, and in a cost of living crisis, dangerous.