Students are surviving not thriving through financial hardship

When students face hardship, careful concern for impact might prevent money getting to students in need in time. Liz Austen, Alan Donnelly and Matt Parkin explain.

Liz Austen is Head of Evaluation and Research (Student Experience, Teaching and Learning) at Sheffield Hallam University

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Alan Donnelly is a Lecturer in Research, Evaluation and Student Engagement at Sheffield Hallam University


Matt Parkin is Head of Student Funding and Covid Support Services at Sheffield Hallam University

Immediately after the March 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, students across the country were reporting financial hardship.

The loss of jobs and paid hours were noted along with reduced financial support available from parents.

The monetary impact of Covid was becoming evident, especially for students facing additional barriers when accessing higher education. Worry about money was also linked to declining student mental health.

So when the Office for Students distributed hardship funding on behalf of the Department for Education to help alleviate that hardship, an important question arose – how important was it to know in advance that a particular distribution method would have the right impact?

At Sheffield Hallam we decided to spend the additional funding immediately because we knew students were in urgent need, and then to evaluate impact. Imagine the alternative – the additional hardship funding allowance goes unspent, and students are unable to pay their rent or buy food. Students can’t study effectively without equipment and their learning would be further disrupted.

Pandemic impacts

Early on in the pandemic, sector agencies (e.g. Sutton Trust May 2020) recommended that institutions and the government provide additional financial support to students experiencing hardship.

OfS was also keen to understand the nuances of student experiences during this time. On the back of evidence that suggested that students were “impacted by unreliable internet connections, lack of access to appropriate hardware and software, and unsuitable home study spaces”, it launched a review of digital teaching and learning and institutional strategies to address digital poverty (Sept 2020, Gravity Assist).

From December 2020, the Department for Education (DfE) made £70m of additional student hardship funding available to registered providers via OfS. However, in spite of the evidence of student hardship, Wonkhe’s analysis of the OfS Board report from July 2021 reveals that £1.66m was subsequently returned, unspent.

Supporting our students

The emerging picture of student financial difficulty was no different at Sheffield Hallam University to that reported more widely in the sector. Our view was that if we were going to support students with extensions or a repeat assessment attempt because of an “unexpected life event”, then that same life event might be grounds for extra financial support too.

The requests for financial support from all students (not just Home, UG students who we might have reasonably expected to have been supported under the umbrella of our Access & Participation Plan) were overwhelming, and quite different in size and shape than anything we had seen before.

We quickly realised that an enhanced version of our standard hardship scheme, coupled with our normal bursaries, were not going to be enough.

Following detailed discussions with our SU officers and after examining our own data, we designed a series of targeted financial interventions. Some of these were small (over 2,000 shopping voucher were distributed in the first few weeks of lockdown) and others were large (over 5,000 students were helped to purchase a laptop) and targeted at different groups (with more than 1,000 bursaries for postgraduate and international students).

All of this necessitated building a new infrastructure that simply didn’t exist before in order to handle the scale of the effort. Given this context, and given the size of our own financial commitment, when we received the additional hardship funding allocation, it was important not only to distribute it, but to evaluate the impact on student experiences.

Adapting the OfS toolkit

OfS has reported an improvement in the quality of evaluation by providers who are using their financial support evaluation toolkit, which has been available since 2017, and was designed and validated by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University. The toolkit aims to “support higher education providers to understand and improve the impact of their financial support investment on student success and progression” (Office for Students 2020).

In order to explore if, and how well, the financial support has helped students to navigate the academic year, the survey tool from this toolkit was used as the framework for this data collection and analysis. In May 2021, a total of 347 respondents, from 5,302 students who received the additional hardship funding allowance from Sheffield Hallam University in 2020/21, completed the survey, which contained a range of closed and open-ended questions. This represented a response rate of 7 per cent.

Student experiences of hardship

Students indicated that the additional hardship funding allowance, while important for many reasons, was mainly relied on to pay for essential living costs, such as food, rent and household bills. Using the funding to support lifestyles or hobbies was a secondary consideration. Some students commented that the support prevented them from having to make difficult decisions about where to prioritise, with one respondent stating that “I wouldn’t have money for studying equipment and rent, it would have been one or the other”.

The majority of respondents “strongly agreed” or “agreed” with the statement that the additional hardship funding had helped them to “concentrate on my studies without worrying about finances” (79 per cent). The responses highlighted how the financial support paid for devices and hardware for many students, who previously had no or limited access to equipment or were sharing with family members.

The financial support enabled some recipients to address their study and work balance and to be less dependent on income from paid work, especially important at the time when the limited availability of part-time jobs acted as another barrier to becoming more financially secure. Personal savings (40 per cent) and money from employment (33 per cent) were used by many students to pay for their higher education.

It was common for students to use money from friends and family, which was more likely among postgraduate students (63 per cent) than undergraduate respondents (39 per cent). In most cases, students expected to repay this at some point in the future. This distinction could be explained by fee status, as most undergraduate students in the sample were home students, and most postgraduates were international students.

The role of this financial support in helping students to continue studying on their course, and the positive impact it has had on recipients’ wellbeing, was noted by many participants. The majority of respondents (84 per cent) selected “strongly agree” or “agree” to the statement that “receiving the hardship fund helps me to feel less anxious than I would have felt otherwise”.

The money helped to “alleviate stresses” of recipients and the terms “relief” or “relieved” were frequently used to describe the difference it made. For others, the funding enabled several students to support their families, for example, by being able to live independently and protect vulnerable family members.

Act, then evaluate

Whilst administrators deliberate about the best way to spend the funding, student wellbeing deteriorates, reports of stress and anxiety go up, and other student support areas are affected. It would be interesting to know whether the monies returned from other institutions were simply not needed, or whether alternative strategies were in place to provide emergency financial support, and what their associated impact was.

On reflection, calling the hardship funding something else might have helped. The term “hardship” can be problematic – students may not relate to the term, or perceive it to carry some stigma which presents as a barrier. If institutions treated the additional hardship allowance like an extension to their existing hardship schemes, this could have created very onerous and time consuming barriers for students.

Arguably, what was needed here was for each institution to design a targeted “relief fund” based on their own local contexts.

At Sheffield Hallam we have committed to an ambitious evaluation strategy as part of our Access and Participation Plan (A&PP) and have a dedicated team within the institution to support evaluation design and implementation. We were able to include details of our approach to financial hardship within the aforementioned OfS call for evidence and the A&PP end of year reporting.

We also continue to evaluate impact using a variety of methods. When the relevant HESA data becomes available, we will use the statistical tool in the same toolkit to evaluate the relationship between financial support received and student outcomes, looking at comparisons between recipients/non-recipients and distinct student groups. Associated learning will inform future decision making regarding financial support for our students.

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