I’m not suggesting for a minute that students have been the only group omitted from Rishi Sunak’s schemes to get people through the pandemic.
But for obvious reasons, every time he’s asserted that the Government is doing everything it takes, it has irked me a bit that students have been conspicuously omitted from any of the Chancellor’s announcements or packages.
We’ve noted before how inadequate the English student support package is, and noted how even Phillip Augar managed to get his sums wrong on the costs students face with particular reference to student accommodation.
For all the chatter about tuition fees, the situation is a major problem in Scotland too. The SNP government has been repeatedly accused of dragging its heels over implementing recommendations in its own review on the student maintenance end of the student finance debate in Scotland.
Some students face real, biting hardship as a result of the pandemic. Some will have been working – predominantly in the now-closed leisure and hospitality industries – and while some will have been furloughed, many won’t have been. Some don’t work during term time but do work over the summer. Some had this term’s rent written off – but many are still having to pay it – some to their own university. Let’s not forget that plenty of parents are also affected and supposed to be propping students up, and both ministers and Phillip Augar think that students should be meeting their costs via virtually non-existent part-time work.
In April, Scotland was first with some help when it announced an eye-catching “£5m for student hardship”. This wasn’t quite as amazing as it looked on first inspection – the detail revealed that only £2.2m was new money for higher education students. But it was a start.
So naturally, the pressure was on in England. March and April came and went, and then eventually on May 4th we got the Government’s optimistically labelled “support package for universities and students”. As usual, most of the focus in the sector was on university funding, but the press release did claim “funding to support those [students] in financial hardship” to the value of an impressive-sounding “£46m”.
So I thought I’d interrogate that number a bit.
Slicing the pie
First of all, when you divide £46m between England’s higher education providers and/or students, it’s not a lot of money. But this is a story of funding for students that is even more pitiful the more you look at it, and worse still as the effects of the pandemic go on.
The detail on May 4 said, “The Government has worked with the OfS to help clarify that providers can use existing funds, totalling £46m across April and May, to boost their hardship funds for students in financial difficulty”. It added, “This can include help for IT equipment and internet access”.
That £46m seemed like an unusual figure, but on closer inspection, and when triangulating with OfS’ provider FAQs, it became clear how it was being claimed. This is the £277m that OfS allocated in “student premium” funding for 2019-2020, divided by 12 and then multiplied by two (months) to cover the assumed duration of pandemic impacts.
Not, in any way, new money.
The first question, therefore, is whether it’s realistic to assume that that two months’ worth of funding can be realistically reallocated at this stage. As a reminder, student premium funding is a HEFCE hangover – it’s funding earmarked to contribute towards the aims and objectives set out in access and participation plans for 2019-20 or (for those without such plans) access and participation statements.
Premiums are intended to support the costs of activities that contribute to providers’ ambitions around student success and progression. “Providers must therefore use student premium grants solely for these purposes”, says the original OfS guidance.
OfS says that “providers are permitted to divert more of their student premium funding to their hardship funds to support students”. But hold on. Wouldn’t lots of that £££ for the two months identified have already been set aside, or spent or be tied up in staff costs that don’t just disappear?
It’s an underspend
OfS says “there may still be significant uncommitted funding for planned activities such as the delivery of face-to-face outreach activity in schools which have been closed as a result of the coronavirus outbreak”. That may be true – but plenty of providers are delivering online outreach, and plenty have fixed (often staff based) costs that you can’t magic away even if there’s less activity.
And anyway – how much of that student premium funding goes on the sorts of activities that OfS says won’t be running right now?
This page has the monitoring data and outcomes from the 2017-18 OFFA access agreements and HEFCE student premium funding – a regime very similar to the one in operation right now. It tells us that of the £302m student premium funding allocated that year, just 40.6% was spent on access – the rest is tied up in student success, progression and student hardship. None of that work will have gone away during the pandemic – so let’s guess that this year’s reduced student premium allocation of £277m has £112.5m of access work in it.
Next let’s be generous and assume that it is indeed possible to, say, somehow, halve your access spend in April and May. That’s £9.4m you’re highly optimistically left with to cover all financial impacts on students. Meanwhile in Canada, Justin Trudeau announces the equivalent of £736 a month in student financial help. Each. Per month. Until August.
If England’s wildly optimistic figure of £9.4m already sounds like it’s spread too thinly, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Access agreements cover home undergrads. But this briefing indicates that a paltry £9.4m is supposed to also cover international students in hardship. This one suggests you use “premium funding to bolster mental health support services”, which allows OfS to mention this “clarification” scheme in its briefing on student mental health.
April and May continue. Every single time you are asked about students in what is now obviously becoming biting poverty, you remix the same announcement. An MP asks about support for online learning, and the £46m pops up. Another asks about paying rent, and it pops up again. Another asks about students facing storage, removal and cleaning costs and it makes another appearance. Students threatened with homelessness? Hello again. Students can’t get a job over the summer? Hardship funds will sort it.
As May gets close to June, the pandemic’s impacts are not letting up. Thousands of students have already signed contracts for housing in June and July. Jobs in the hospitality industry are not reappearing. The Unite Foundation points out that work has dried up because of Covid-19 and students previously in care or estranged from their families may be forced to drop out of university.
We’ve run out of time
It’s May 31. The call comes in from BBC News. You can’t reannounce the “£46m” that you’ve been saying covered April and May – because it’s almost June. So instead, you just change the months on your response:
A spokeswoman for the UK Department for Education said they understood it was an “extremely difficult time for students, especially for those who do not have a support network around them”.
“To help those most in need, we have worked with the Office for Students to help universities use an existing £23m per month for June and July towards student hardship funds,” they added.
So just to be clear. DfE is patting itself on the back for OfS “clarifying” that a third of the money already given to providers for access and participation can be spent in a slightly different way on a group of people not even usually able to claim universal credit. Only in truth, it’s only a fraction of that money, and it only works if providers cancel a bunch of other A&P work, or make some A&P staff redundant – while OfS piles on the pressure to keep outcomes in that area up.
The upshot? The government in Westminster has cast students completely adrift in this pandemic, and then has spent months disingenuously pretending that it hasn’t. It might seem now that this is something that they can get away with, but for all those students in hardship, it’s a betrayal that will never be forgotten.