Sticking plasters for the hardest hit will be in short supply in a pandemic

Eluned Parrott argues that care-experienced and estranged students are hit hard by the pandemic - a problem that needs Government intervention

As the Covid crisis continues to impact on student life, the challenges facing some of our most vulnerable students have become ever more acute.

A survey of care-experienced and estranged students by the Unite Foundation, Stand Alone, Become, Spectra and NNECL in the first week of lockdown showed that 62% were already worried that the crisis had affected their ability to pay basic bills.

Since then, we’ve seen a total collapse of the student economy with the temporary, casual and part-time jobs that many students rely on to support themselves disappearing.

For students with some family support, the situation is a challenge but not necessarily a disaster. For those who have no “family capital” to rely on, the crisis is rapidly becoming an emergency.

They have no jobs, no prospect of jobs, and few sources of financial help other than to turn to universities that are themselves under financial pressure. Universities UK claims that universities have already lost £790m in income due to Covid and face a £2bn black hole over the next year.

The financial package that brings forward payments expected next year helps with immediate cash-flow concerns – but delays the pain, rather than tackles it.

Seeing students

OfS liaising with charities and the sector to produce supportive guidance on how universities should assist vulnerable shows that these students are at last being “seen” in what has sometimes been viewed as a very homogenous student population.

The guidance gives examples of services that universities could offer, but institutions are no more homogenous in real life than the student body. Every institution is different in terms of the facilities they have, the numbers of vulnerable students attending and the financial resources they can draw on.

We cannot expect universities to deliver a shadow welfare system through hardship grants and bursaries. The system was never designed to cope with a catastrophic collapse of the student job market, and while many universities have managed to top up their funds, they simply cannot be expected to fill the gaps left behind by tens of thousands of lost jobs.

The vast majority of students have no recourse to universal credit and despite a lack of clarity on the issue (highlighted by Martin Lewis of Money Saving Expert) there’s the unspoken assumption that parents will step in. For students without any family support who are now facing real hardship, the only chance of relief might be to drop out of university and rely on benefits instead.

For this year’s graduates, who have seen the employment market wither on the vine, being unable to claim benefits until September leaves them utterly abandoned.

Not regulation nor financial support

While guidance is welcome, it isn’t regulation and it certainly isn’t financial support. OfS refers universities to their Access and Participation plans as a framework through which it could hold universities to account on the delivery of support to vulnerable students during this crisis. I see two potential issues with that.

First, when asking a highly regulated sector like higher education to follow policy, government has three tools: guidance, regulation and money. It’s a fundamental truth that a regulated body will do everything it legally has to, to the letter of the law; everything it is paid to deliver; and anything it is “guided” to do only after its legal obligations are delivered. Guidance is very much the language of “nice to have”.

Next, each Access and Participation plan is an individual set of commitments based on the priorities of each institution. It is a form of regulation where universities themselves have written the rule-book. While some refer specifically to supporting care-experienced and estranged students, not all do, and they can’t be held to account for promises they haven’t made.

That’s not to say that institutions have acted in bad faith, but it is a major disadvantage to those who did the right thing in drafting plans as inclusively and specifically as possible.

And third, no institution could have anticipated the severity of the situation we now find ourselves in.

The reality of devolving responsibility for supporting care-experienced and estranged students to universities is that there will be huge inequality in the support available in practical and financial terms for students in different institutions. That’s no criticism of the institutions themselves; it is an inevitable consequence of the rich and varied nature of HEIs in the UK.

Despite positive intentions, for a government facing an unprecedented situation, it isn’t just a devolution of responsibility; without funding and management, it would be perilously close to an abdication of it.

No more plasters

The current situation needs a comprehensive strategic plan not a collection of sticking plasters. That strategy must be delivered from the centre to relieve pressure on embattled universities, ensure equality of access, and deliver funding to those in need as quickly as possible.

As a starting point, I’d like to see the rest of the UK’s governments follow Scotland’s lead in providing an emergency grant for students who have nowhere else to turn. This is a national crisis and it demands national responses across all of the UK’s four nations.

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