Another Covid student support package is possible

As feelings of injustice, hardship and anxiety build amongst students, Patrick O'Donnell and Ben Vulliamy plot a way out of the mess with a new kind of student support package.

Patrick O’Donnell is Union President at York University Students' Union


Ben Vulliamy is the CEO of the University of York Students’ Union

As a students’ union president and CEO respectively, we have seen and heard first hand a growing sense of injustice, hardship and anxiety build amongst our students.

We have also observed huge disparities in the way that governments are dealing with it – both across the nations of the UK, and further afield in places like France (making food provisions for students), Canada (delivering a generous version of universal credit for students) and elsewhere.

We fear that the disparity in treatment fuels the strong sense of injustice. The six tweet paucity of the government’s position didn’t help. The complete absence of a coordinated, fairly administered and strategic resolution – with clarity of leadership across government – adds to the challenges presented to students over the last year and likely for coming months and years.

Building on some of the ideas being floated by vice chancellors and others, we wanted to dream up a student support package that recognised some shared responsibility, addressed the areas of greatest vulnerability, but also supported all students, who have contributed so much to our economy and society, to continue to do so as they move ahead in their lives.

No romance without finance

Students that study away from home have been asked to stay at a distance for the time being. While many (though not all) universities with halls of residence and some (though not all) private halls providers have offered discounts, reductions and rent credits, there has inevitably been very limited action from private landlords to reduce rents.

This is one of the strongest drivers of inequity and grievance from students and parents (and from the taxpayers who subsidise the loans that pay those rents). In an ideal world students in this situation would not be paying rent at all and would have easy ways to escape contracts – even in joint tenancy arrangements.

To start to unlock the problem, the government should offer “match funding” to private landlords to offer rent rebates for tenants unable to use their property. Landlords would also be able to apply for mortgage holidays and other forms of Covid relief – but those not offering support to tenants would be automatically rejected. This would also be made publicly available for future renters.

Splitting the burden with the landlord reduces the cost impact for the government, but also creates a database that should be published to prospective tenants of the landlords and properties that committed.

Longer term, a proper enquiry into the way the student housing market works is long overdue – because few would agree that right now it operates in the interests of student tenants. An exploration of a national student tenancy insurance scheme insuring tenants in a similar way to that the FSCS scheme insures peoples banking or ATOL offers protection for people holidays and travel. Why would would protect the savings and investments of the wealthy or the international holiday arrangements but not protect student tenants is a anomaly that we should look to resolve.

Over the ocean

What the eye-catching Northern Ireland settlement recognised is that students are out of pocket for a variety of reasons – and they are not able to access some of the other forms of public support available. They can’t, for example, claim universal credit, and are less likely to qualify for furlough.

The year of disruption has undoubtedly required additional expenses – whether it’s lap tops and wifi upgrades, home delivery when quarantining, additional utility bills as they spend time locked indoors, or loss of earnings from their gig economy job.

Again a “salt in the wound” in this area is that they were blamed for the crisis in September and October while being subjected to cost burdens and ignored by other forms of public support that enable positive behaviours.

Hardship funding for the most acute cases is vital – but all students have been affected. A grant of £150 per period / term of government enforced prohibition would see a back date of £450 for those who were studying in lock down 1, 2 and 3 (or £300 for first years who started September 2020) and would also apply in the future. That would avoid future negotiations or anxieties if we end up suffering significant further disruption in future terms and years.

All life long (all life)

The debate on fees is really difficult. We understand that simplistic debt reductions would benefit the richest graduates more than the poorer graduates and does nothing to put pounds into students pockets now.

And yet the argument that a student signed up on the expectation of more than zoom lectures and online quizzes is impossible to dismiss. They reasonably expected that they would engage in the things we said they would – like “dynamic small group teaching” or “group projects” or “getting hands on with technology and labs”.

They believed they would debate the seminar with their course mates and GTA’s in the cafe or bar after the lecture, they believed they would meet and engage with a rich tapestry of multi culturalism and diversity, and they thought a higher education course represented a highly engaged form of learning together, playing together, building together, collaborating and sharing.

To remedy all of this a further or higher education fee credit of £4,000 would be given to every learner for use within 5 years (while the jobs market gradually recovers) – but not in the current academic year. It could be used against the final year of a UG course or be used to add a masters on. The cost of that credit would be met equally by the government and education providers, spreading the cost burden between student (who after all takes on the balance as a cost of debt), the government and the education provider.

Critically – this would be open to any students from anywhere in the world currently studying in the UK. This would be promoted and marketed as a globally minded and conscientious offer to signal our global outlook and unprecedented commitment to international students. The subsequent international student growth and / extension of existing international student numbers would generate new income offsetting the cost of the initiative.

Marked and market depression

The “learning credit” concept is designed to redress a period of sustained employment market downturn. When we established fees and a model of student debt we also engrained a view that attending university and tuition debt was an investment into future employability and future earnings wealth.

That proposition is harder to deliver on when a student graduating last summer left a course riddled with disruption from industrial action and pandemic lock down into a pandemic employment market suppressed by lock down. A career in fruit picking and supermarket delivery driving probably isn’t the career that the graduate aspired to and it’s not the assumption the Treasury made when designing the current funding model.

Our package doesn’t just help students navigate university life in a pandemic but encourages them to stay in university life while the aftershocks of the pandemic (and Brexit) ripple their way through the economy and a new jobs market emerges. And to pay for all of this package? Well Gavin Williamson announced he had saved £1.9bn in leaving Erasmus in the Telegraph last week so that should cover it.

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