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Where is the Covid flexibility in dealing with the cost of living crisis?

Michelle Morgan and Beth Craigie argue that the sector could learn from the way we dealt with Covid-19 to manage the long term impact of the cost of living crisis.
This article is more than 1 year old

Michelle Morgan is Dean of Students at the University of East London. 

Beth Craigie is the Public Affairs and Policy Manager at the University of East London.

When the pandemic hit, we saw a pragmatic approach to assessments and mitigating circumstances.

The guidelines and policy adopted by universities were driven by the restrictions imposed by Government in response to the pandemic.

They were quite generic and tolerant in their application across all students due to the unprecedented circumstances.

For example, no sick notes were needed for Covid-19, there was an understanding that engagement would be affected due to IT and access issues, learning was all moved to online and there was more flexibility regarding late submissions. There was also more tolerance and understanding of the challenges facing students regarding meeting submission deadlines due to the exceptional circumstances that students and staff faced.

Cost of living and non-attendance

One of the suggestions made over the summer, as the scope of the cost of living crisis became apparent, urges us to examine our approach to assessments and mitigating circumstances in relation to cost of living crisis. This point raises a number of concerns for some readers as it was felt this could continue to enable remote attendance at a time when government and institutions were requiring the opposite. The frustration of colleagues who turn up to a half full or empty classroom is understandable and this was highlighted in Sheffield Hallam’s psychology lecturer Peter Olusoga’s viral thread on the empty teaching room. It is also understandable that colleagues are concerned how non-attendance in-person can impact on engagement and the all important metrics that are used to measure, weigh and judge success of a student or academic.

However, as Jim Dickinson observes, attendance as students progress through their degree does wax and wane and it is critical to remember that our current second and final undergraduate year students have not had a traditional in-person experience that they can “re-engage” with. They are having to learn a new behaviour at a time when assessment matters in their final degree classification. And obviously, many will argue that this is even more of a reason why they should attend but they need bridging support to do this.

The challenges facing our students now

However, the cost of living crisis is likely to have far greater impact than Covid-19 if we consider belonging and the ability to succeed given a lack of food, warmth, safety and accommodation, because of the lack of sector wide action and governmental understanding.

We know – for example – that the cold has a severe impact on physical health, and it is so significant that the Department for Health annually publishes a cold weather plan. Cold weather, like that we have experienced this week, can impact your immune system, make it harder to fight disease whilst cold and damp conditions make it easier for infection and disease spread – as we are sure readers will be all too familiar with post pandemic. For those whose immune systems are suppressed, or those living with disabilities, the likeliness of getting ill during the extreme cold increases substantially.

Along with the the increased chance of severe illness for our student population living with a disability, the poor quality housing experienced by many students also has a significant impact on health. A recent study found that almost a third of students reported living in rented accommodation with damp or mould, and over a third have reported being “uncomfortably cold” – all of which indicates a far from ideal learning environment. Additionally, there is some evidence to suggest that cold temperatures have a significant impact on your brain functionality, as blood flow to the brain decreases by 20 per cent when the temperature drops from 21 to 10 degrees over a 30 minute period.

So it is hardly surprising that in recent ONS findings more than three-quarters (77 per cent) of students were concerned that the rising cost of living may affect how well they do in their studies. We also know from our own “start of year research” at UEL undertaken over the past two years, that students across all levels of study are very concerned and anxious about getting into debt, increasing their debt levels and about living and travel costs. And for returning students at UEL, we know levels of concern are much higher than for new undergraduates because they have the cost of the lived experience at university. Many universities have successfully put in place support – particularly financial – to support students physiological needs, such as increasing hardship grants to cover the increasing cost of heating bills.

The impact of not having a sector wide approach

Without a sector wide approach, we face a number of challenges. There will be a likely increase in mitigating circumstances submissions, which can not only create anxiety, stress and embarrassment for the student especially when trying to explain the impact of cold or hunger, but also the administrative burden. And varying approaches to assessments and mitigating circumstances, will result in assessment boards making inequitable decisions, thus leading to an increase in appeals.

Likewise an increase in resits, repeats, carry over of fails into the next year or even withdrawals could have a huge financial cost to the student and institution. And fourth, inequity between institutions could lead to disadvantage through impact on league tables, funding and Office for Students requirements. Throughout and post pandemic, we know that students from disadvantaged backgrounds were most acutely affected, across the education system – and, indeed, research shows that the cost of living crisis will disproportionally effect non-traditional learners, with widening participation characteristics.

Research from Million+ warned that the cost of living crisis “risks setting back the widening participation success seen in the UK over recent years”. The analysis shows that the cost-of-living crisis is placing nearly 300,000 UK students in financial peril, with a disproportionate number of older, working-class, or Black students likely to drop out. Redesigning and reinstating an assessment and mitigating circumstances approach and policy would alleviate pressure from students from all backgrounds – but would no doubt have a vast positive impact on our most vulnerable.

Adapting and continuing Covid-19 flexibility

At a time when students and staff resilience continues to be challenged, adapting Covid-19 assessment and mitigating circumstances approaches and policy would provide flexibility whether that be through providing automatic 7 day extensions on a piece of assessed work (where appropriate and eligible) and not having to provide evidence to “prove” the impact of being cold and hungry, but also an arm of comfort and protection.

In January, the Lighthouse Policy Group will host their annual meeting at The University of East London. Policy professionals will come together to discuss longer term policy interventions – starting with assessment and mitigating circumstances policies – to see if, as a sector, we can come together to apply some of the learning from the pandemic to the cost of living crisis.

One thing is for sure, as a sector we need to be adaptable and flexible to this state of perma-crisis, with short term and long term policies that will support and aid our students to succeed. We need to focus on providing students with a long term feeling of safety, and have a sector wide approach.

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