Eva Crossan Jory is Vice President (Welfare) at the National Union of Students

Announcing a temporary extension to entitlement to statutory sick pay (SSP) on Tuesday, the Prime Minister said he wanted to limit the financial impact on those who had to self-isolate to help stop the spread of Covid-19.

The Chancellor went on to announce further measures in his Budget statement the following day. But, while any extra support for those affected is welcome, there’s a significant risk that student workers who rely on their earnings during study will find themselves penalised.

Students move in and out of the labour market during study, but during term the ONS estimates over a million individuals in full-time study combine this with part-time work. While there are many reasons they do so, including developing skills and gaining experience to help gain full-time employment after graduation, we know a very significant proportion do so to pay for their rent, utilities, food, and other essential bills, or to cover the course costs – including childcare – that enable their participation.

Without those earnings, those students simply won’t be able to make ends meet, with impacts on their mental or physical health, their ability to engage in their studies or even to continue on their course at all.

Falling through the cracks

It seems now inevitable that some student workers will have to take time off work either because they develop symptoms of Coronavirus or otherwise are advised to self-isolate. Clearly, students should follow any medical advice they are given – but the way SSP works means many such students won’t be entitled to it, leaving them out of pocket and under strain, or perhaps tempted to go to work even if they are unwell.

This situation arises because to receive SSP you must earn £118 per week on average – yet many student workers will not do so because they work part-time and because the minimum wage is lower for younger workers. For example, someone receiving the 18-20 NMW rate of £6.15ph for 16 hours’ work receives only £98.40. If their employer only pays SSP, that means they receive no support at all.

Sickness isn’t the only reason that students could lose out on pay. Those working in the gig economy or on zero-hours contracts in retail, catering, the night-time economy and elsewhere (many of whom work for universities and SUs) may in any case find their hours being cut back or eliminated altogether as footfall drops and businesses scale back their activities. No change to the rules on SSP will help them.

Evidently, these problems aren’t restricted solely to students, and the TUC have been campaigning to ensure SSP supports other part-time workers who wouldn’t earn enough to receive it under the current rules.  Perhaps acknowledging this problem, the Chancellor also announced £500m in hardship funding, to be distributed through local authorities. Yet here too full-time students will not benefit: the Government expects most of the funding to be used to reduce council tax bills which full-time students do not pay. Even if some is used for more general support, most of the local authority hardship schemes which replaced the old centrally-administered Social Fund in 2013 exclude full-time students as, for the most part, cannot claim Universal Credit or the legacy benefits it replaced.

It should be said that higher education student support from Student Finance England, Student Finance Wales, Student Finance Northern Ireland or SAAS in Scotland is less of an immediate concern, as it continues to be paid for the first 60 days of any absence for illness across these four agencies – but we know that support levels are often totally inadequate, which is why so many students work during study in the first place.

Showing leadership

To address these injustices, clearly the earnings threshold to receive SSP should be lowered so that more low-paid workers qualify, and local authorities should allow full-time students and apprentices access to any local hardship fund scheme. But the situation is fast-moving and there are no guarantees either concession will be made. As such, we cannot simply sit back and wait for this to happen, and the higher education sector must show urgent leadership on three key areas.

First, we need to ensure that institutional hardship funds are sufficient to support those students whose employment earnings are reduced, or where there are other financial impacts of Coronavirus – for example, international students whose travel plans are disrupted or whose income from their families might be affected.

We also need to ensure hardship funds are advertised clearly as we cannot assume all students are aware they exist, not least for this purpose. And we need to consider how the application processes can be made as least burdensome as possible, both on the students applying and on those staff who administer the funds.

Second, those universities and other providers who employ students directly in whatever capacity should commit to paying sick pay even where the student’s earnings do not meet the SSP threshold, if this is not already their policy. This includes universities committing to helping SUs that employ students with these costs. Careers and employment services should work with any local employers to ensure they do so too.

Next, we need the sector to redouble its efforts to call on the Government not only to ensure these emergency measures can support students in part-time employment, but that in the longer-term, student maintenance support levels are increased so students do not have to rely on part-time work to pay their rent.

And finally, SUs need to show some leadership – not only supporting student staff working in SUs and by providing advice to their members as I know many already are – but in working with trade unions to get young workers to unionise in every workplace. Less than 10% of young people aged 16-24 are members of a trade union – this has to change, because we know that the only way to truly transform workers’ rights is through collective action.

Students fight for a better world every day: doing the right thing is what we do. Let’s stop penalising student workers today, and work together to fix the system so no student is penalised tomorrow.

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