The opportunity and wealth gap between the young and old is already unacceptably large. Existing challenges are being amplified by the impact of the pandemic on students and their life chances.
The government must take urgent action to meet its responsibilities by championing fairness between the generations and avoid longer-term consequences for this generation and wider society.
Our responsibility to this generation of students requires actions to address their immediate needs. We must also recognise the huge challenges they are facing, as they study through the disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic, and graduate into a difficult jobs market.
Earlier this month, together with six other vice chancellors, I wrote an open letter to the government to highlight the scale of the challenge and propose realistic solutions. The letter proposes a package of actions that universities and the government can adopt to begin to address these issues. Urgent priorities include further government funded increases to hardship funds, and financial assistance to help universities address student mental health challenges and the very pressing issue of digital poverty.
The government’s recent announcement of an extension of funding to address student hardship in England is very welcome news, and will enable us to help those students facing the most dire financial circumstances.
At the same time, it is important to recognise the need for a more wide-ranging package of actions to ensure that, as well as meeting urgent financial hardship, we are supporting students towards the jobs they aspire to, and equipping our graduates with the skills and opportunities they need so they can play their part in our national recovery.
The suggestions we make will start to address student concerns by offering practical help and support – showing that this generation have not been forgotten, that they will not be left behind, and that they have a vital contribution to make.
Meeting urgent financial needs
One part of our proposal was a significant increase in hardship funding and the suspension of interest on student loans. There has been a lot of focus on these financial actions in the national debate, much of which has been linked to the wider issue of fee reductions.
It is important to understand these as distinct issues, and that whilst it is clear that not all students would benefit from an interest rate suspension, the current rate of 5.6 per cent appears punitive at a time when the base rate is 0.1 per cent. Suspending interest for a period linked to the disruption of the pandemic would send an important signal to our students that the government recognises the challenges they face, and that we care.
Speaking to individual students, and to our students’ union, I know that additional hardship funding and suspension of interest on loans will be welcomed by many, and seen as an acknowledgement of the challenges students have had to navigate over the past year.
We have also invited ministers to work with us on a set of proposals to identify further resources that might be better utilised to support students as they graduate into a challenging and rapidly changing jobs market. Some of these solutions would require more funding, while others simply require more flexible use of existing money.
Apprenticeship levy and bite sized skills
As an employer we already set aside money for the apprenticeship levy, but the stringent conditions on use and red tape mean we are not currently able to use very much of this funding pot. At Essex, for example, we contributed over £500,000 last year, but were only able to use £100,000 to re-invest in training new apprentices.
Imagine if we could unlock that money and redirect it to help students as they approach graduation and then move into a difficult jobs market. These funds could be targeted at supporting further training aligned to emerging areas of most pressing need, so that our graduate generation is optimally equipped to drive the recovery.
We have also proposed that bite sized courses to complement degree-level qualifications would benefit graduates moving into the job market. These courses would be shorter and more flexible and focus on higher level in-demand skills.
I understand that many from outside the HE sector will ask why universities do not invest more in these areas themselves. We need to do more to build public understanding of what the pandemic has meant for university finances, including the costs of moving rapidly to blended and online learning, as well as investments to keep our campuses Covid secure and to support mental health and wellbeing.
At the University of Essex, and at other universities, our efforts to ensure that we are delivering high quality, online learning, supporting student welfare and addressing digital deficits have stretched financial resources and, even with reprioritisation of spending, will lead to financial deficits.
Essex has already invested over £15 million that was not previously budgeted for in managing the pandemic. This has included over £1.5 million on testing – we will only recover £150k of this from government funding to support pre-Christmas testing. We have also lost nearly £20 million on rental income from accommodation, because we have offered all of our students in university accommodation flexible contracts, so that they only pay for accommodation that they use. Our experience will not be unusual across the higher education sector.
I remain firmly of the view that, for most young people, studying at university this year has been their best option. I have been overwhelmed by the resilience and brilliance of Essex students and staff. Our students have looked after each other and creatively adapted to their situation, and the amazing work of our staff means we can be confident that students’ education outcomes will be met, and that we are giving them the best experience we can in the circumstances of the pandemic.
However, we do also need to recognise, not only that the university experience has been different for this generation of students, but that urgent action to protect and promote their future life chances is needed, to avoid deepening existing patterns of intergenerational injustice.
Universities are doing all we can to support our students – we ask that the government works with us to play its full part too.