Students are hitting hard times – will they get the facts they need?

Student experience expert Michelle Morgan details the findings of a new report on student financial concerns, working intentions and Covid-19.

“Now what I want is facts” said Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times, which on the eve of Clearing exactly what universities should be preparing to give students.

To get there, universities need the voice of students. But I fear that this critical aspect in planning for the coming academic year has been ignored.

In the past my work some of my work has looked closely at trying to understand students so we can help their transition. In my new report I have looked specifically at the financial concerns and working intentions of incoming level 4 students. Focusing on students and grounding decisions in their experiences and expectations will help us succeed in the autumn.

What facts do we know?

Covid-19 has created extensive economic, social, and educational challenges that have affected individuals massively, and it is not known how long those challenges will continue. We know from previous research and this most recent report that applicants and students are very concerned about having sufficient funding during their studies for accommodation and other living costs, and the debt they will accrue during and post study.

As HEPI’s recent report highlights, rent now takes up three-quarters (73 per cent) of the maximum student loan on average, up from 58 per cent just a few years ago. Rents have consistently risen faster than inflation and maintenance loans.

The research demonstrates that not having sufficient funding and concerns about debt can impact on decisions on whether to go to university and which one, and on the university learning and student experience in, through and out of the student study lifecycle.

For many applicants and students (especially those who are from widening participation backgrounds), working part-time during term time or holidays is not an option but a requirement if they are to participate in higher education.

So, will pushing applicants (and students) into a corner by their chosen institution end happily? It is doubtful given they invest a lot of emotional, personal, and financial energy into their university experience. It could affect their loyalty to the university, their morale and mental health.

Applicants and students need options and choices, and they will be comparing how they are treated by their chosen university with their friends. Just as social media is a powerful way to strengthen a university brand, so applicants and students could use it to harm it.

We know that Covid-19 requires us to look at applicants’ intentions to study in 2020-21 and beyond very differently to how it has done. But we must not make assumptions that what we know pre-Covid-19 (and through the temperature-check surveys undertaken during the pandemic crisis that are highlighted in the most recent finance report) will be an accurate reflection of the financial concerns and patterns of study and work participation of applicants and students this coming year.

What facts don’t we know?

We don’t yet know how prospective students will react to their grades and the impact it will have on whether they decide to defer and take exams in the autumn.

We also don’t know whether applicants, who have had their expectations of starting university shaped by institutional marketing strategies, are prepared to have a quite different experience to the one they thought they would get.

We don’t know whether they want to start their university study online or blended, whether they are prepared to have (initially) a non-traditional student experience, and whether they are prepared (potentially) to pay for unused accommodation or accommodation that they can’t leave.

Will the common financial concerns of applicants and students pre-Covid 19 suddenly reduce due to the current exceptional circumstances? Or will concerns about debt and having sufficient funding increase for all applicants and students in 2020 due to the current employment situation and challenges in obtaining regular part-time work?

Many part-time jobs undertaken by students are in hospitality, which has been particularly hard hit. The ability of parents or guardians to make financial contributions to their student child may also decrease as a result of monetary challenges they experienced due to Covid-19 such as using savings and financial investments being affected.

This is likely to impact on middle class students more dramatically than working class. Therefore, could this result in increased deferrals for both applicants and current undergraduate students, especially those who are middle class?

Will applicants choose to study closer to home so they can commute? If they do, this will change the dynamic of their engagement in learning as they become commuter students.

What could we do?

We need to plan for what is known and unknown. First, as a sector we need to put our students at the heart of what we do by listening to their concerns and creating a multifaceted sector-wide approach – but this needs action now if we are to mitigate what we know could happen.

  • A sector-wide staggered start to create confidence and stability for new and returning students would provide universities with time to put in place, and slowly implement across the various years of study, effective blended learning approaches and safe processes on campus, in halls and on transport to the university.
  • A reduction in fees and an increase in the maintenance loan for 2020-21 for new and returning students at undergraduate (and postgraduate) level may act as incentives to encourage them to take the gamble.
  • Clear guidance and information needs to be provided on how learning and other activities will be delivered this coming academic year between now and late August to avoid a potential increase in deferrals for both applicants and students, and complaints about poor value for money.
  • Detailed information on how learning will happen, how safety on campus will be managed and how accommodation and social activities will be achieved are critical.
  • Allocating more funding for hardship grants at key study pressure points with clear signposts will be a critical safety-net for many, especially those who rely on part-time work that could be affected due to Covid-19.
  • And community collaboration between universities and the towns and cities in which they reside will need to be further developed and strengthened especially in terms of providing a safe environment.

Collaboration required

The sector faces many challenges as a result of Covid-19 including financial survival. At present, higher education institutions are functioning unilaterally rather than collaboratively, and they are thinking top down.

If the challenges are approached bottom up and applicant and student needs are put at heart of the issue, principles developed and actioned across the sector could help create confidence and stability – leading to participation thus income and applicants and students feeling supported.

Universities’ and students’ survival may depend on it.

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