Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

I don’t think I need to reiterate here that there are plenty of students who are in an economically precarious position, and need help with essential costs.

The Cost of Living tag on the site is one way to (re)familiarise with the dire position they’re in, and the lack of support that’s been forthcoming from government.

But as well as examining the support that universities can offer, the lack of help from the Department for Education (DfE) and the astonishing deletion of students from the consciousness of BEIS around the corner in Whitehall, we’ve not really touched on local authorities.

And they do have a role to play. Back in September 2021, just as we were crawling out of the worst ravages of the pandemic, Rishi Sunak (then Chancellor), and Thérèse Coffey (then work and pensions secretary) launched a £500m support package for vulnerable households over that winter – and it was to be disbursed by local authorities (specifically via county councils and unitary authorities).

This, it was felt, would ensure that as well as the rather blunt edged national schemes, local discretion would ensure that help reached the right people – by offering payments based on locally determined criteria, or by running schemes like supporting charities to offer small grants to meet daily needs such as food, clothing, and utilities.

One of the key priorities for the scheme was to provide a cushion of funding for those who may not have been eligible for the other supports that the government had made available – but who were nevertheless in need and who required crisis support.

As Coffey said at the time:

…local authorities know their local areas best, and can directly help those who need it most.”

But was she right? And specifically, for our purposes here, did the “people” that she had in mind include students?

My rent is due

They certainly should have been considered.

In the original guidance to local authorities – which has survived largely intact through the multiple energy crisis extensions of the scheme – ministers made clear that the fund should be used particularly for those who had been forgotten by the other schemes.

It also asked local authorities to identify groups who may be vulnerable to rising prices even though they are supported through other schemes or bodies.

It prioritised energy bills as something of particular potential concern to low income households – and local authorities must know the energy efficiency state of their HMO housing stock, right?

Authorities were specifically asked to consider providing support to Disabled people in their area. The statutory extra support for Disabled people wasn’t extended to students on DSA.

And authorities were asked to consider providing support to people with caring responsibilities in their area – and we know how that has grown among students.

When designing their scheme, authorities were able to provide vouchers or cash to households, make direct provision of food and goods, or issue grants to third parties – you’d assume that both universities and students unions would have emerged as obvious partners as the crisis has developed.

And every area had to operate at least part of their scheme on an application basis – but even then there was flexibility on exactly how this could be run, including through third parties rather than directly by the authority.

My kids all need brand new shoes

One problem from the outset was that allocations to local authorities were based on DWP benefits data – not ideal if one of the things you’re supposed to be doing is targeting those not getting other benefits.

Compounding that problem, councils were given access to some of the DWP datasets to allow them to do detailed modelling and targeting – again, an approach largely ignoring full-time students.

But the guidance did say that authorities were to use other sources of information to identify vulnerable households – and perhaps naively, as each iteration of the fund emerged, I sort of assumed that the relevant officials would be liaising closely with universities and students’ unions over both the assessment of need and delivery of relief.

I was almost certainly near-universally wrong.

They said son – looks like bad luck

The first alarm bell rang back in December, when a press release from Bath and North East Somerset tumbled into my inbox proudly proclaiming that it was launching new grants to help low income households with energy and living costs.

BANES was using its allocation of the Household Support Fund to finance a scheme of grants to those on low incomes.

Entitlement was centred around those on the usual list of benefits – but the good news was that residents with a combined household income from earnings and pensions of less than £500 per week were going to be able to access one off grants of £200 per household.

Residents had to have an address in Bath and North East Somerset and have savings and capital of less than £6,000. That’s plenty of students, I thought.

Councillor Richard Samuel, Deputy Leader and cabinet member for Resources, said:

These grants will help people who are struggling to pay for basic essentials like food and energy in this spiralling cost-of-living crisis. I’d urge anyone who thinks they might be eligible to apply to us straight away. Each application will be considered in the order we have received it and processed as soon as we can. We hope this support will ease the burden on those who are most in need and for whom life has become unaffordable.”

That’s students, that, I thought. Or at least some of them.

So there I was – poised to jump onto WhatsApp to point this out to the two big SUs in the city in case they’d not realised it had launched – when I noticed a line I missed on the first skim read:

The funding allocated to the council is not enough to provide grants to full time students who live in B&NES, unless they receive one of the qualifying income related benefits.”

I went to my brother to see what he could do

Trying to get a reply out of the press office was challenging, so I jumped onto Twitter to try to crowdsource whether I was missing something obvious that might justify this kind of outrageous othering.

Local resident Dave Vernalls was helpful, saying what I assume the council wouldn’t have said out loud even if I’d got an answer out if them:

It’s politically complicated locally. Students aren’t universally popular because of the way at least one uni acts. Bath Uni pays no rent on its site, encourages driving (subsidised parking) and has overly expanded admissions so areas are swamped with HMO’s and PBSA’s paying no council tax. So whilst that’s not the fault of students themselves, handing them discretionary funding isn’t a vote winner, and with big numbers in a small authority, you’d either have very tight criteria or very small grants from the available funds.

But surely the council wouldn’t be deliberately politicising poverty on the basis of hungry people who vote get help, and hungry people who don’t, don’t? Dave responded:

Why hit on the council that has limited funds, not the uni’s that for example could charge market rates for parking and use that to help students?

But hold on. Students are citizens. Surely the idea that a local authority can get away with discriminating against them on the basis of assumptions about one of the higher education provider’s budgets in their area is astonishing?

Students who get benefits do qualify – the challenge for the council is that without that stipulation pretty much every student would qualify under the under £500 income and under £6k savings rule – and haven’t been given funding for that many people.”

I mean sure, clearly there’s not enough money. But what on earth is the justification for designing a system that singles out students whose benefits come from a loan from DfE rather than cash from the DWP? Surely poverty is poverty?

When 25% of Bath’s population is students who’d all qualify under the basic conditions, a line has to be drawn somehow.”

Yeah. Around students.

They’re passing all kinds – of bills

Not all universities and SUs have been ignored. There’s a small handful of schemes that I’d been aware of – some messaging targeting to students of general schemes, some topping up of hardship funds, and some funding for food banks or schemes like this Meal Plan Mondays thing at Bucks.

But there was still nothing like enough of these things popping up in my feeds.

So when the DWP and the Treasury confirmed in late February that £842m is being available to councils for another extension of the fund – this time covering the period 1 April 2023 to 31 March 2024 – I decided to ask them, all of them, how they’d approached students during the previous iterations of the scheme.

Specifically, I asked about:

  1. the extent to which FT students had been able to apply for and access the aspect of the fund that has been open to direct application;
  2. the extent to which students had been included in any assessment carried out by the authority on households most in need, and
  3. the extent to which providers (or their SUs), as key third party organisations serving students, had been funded to support students and partnered with to supply intel on the student households most in need.

Just over half replied. Benefit of the doubt, I’m assuming that emails from higher education-based policy operations is the sort of thing a lot of them might usually put in the “probably spam” folder.

Vanishingly few responded with an answer to questions 2 or 3. Better to not answer than to say “we dodn’t bother mate”, I assume.

On question 1, the majority gave me what I might politely describe as “the usual waffle”. So for example the council for my home town, Walsall, said:

Walsall is providing assistance to the borough’s most vulnerable residents using the Household Support Fund in a number of different ways. We are providing support, in the form of direct payments, to all households with children and certain other households that are in receipt of council tax support. Funding has also been allocated to increase the assistance that can be offered to residents in the borough through local food banks and local partner organisations as well as helping with match funding contributions for replacement boilers.

In addition, the council is using the Household Support Fund to increase the assistance available through the Walsall Crisis Support Scheme and Discretionary Housing Payments. Walsall Council has worked with local community associations and organisations to provide the link to the vulnerable households and assistance provided that way is determined on a case by case basis.”

It doesn’t read as if it’s been talking to any HEIs in the region – Wolverhampton still has a campus in Walsall – but perhaps for its own boundaries it was assuming that Walsall College’s students are all covered by a parental low-income household.

It shouldn’t. Walsall’s council tax records tell us that it has 582 dwellings occupied exclusively by full-time students. And you’d think it would know which HEIs they’re attending if they’re exempting those houses from Council Tax.

Solihull was a little more direct. On Q2, its press officer told me that the council had done some work to identify low-income households, including “families, single parent families, pensioners, people with disabilities, and adults without children.”

But on Q3, he just told me that Solihull “has no universities or student unions”.

When I pointed out that there are multiple colleges with HE provision in the area (one that’s called “University Centre”), families whose kids are away at university but will be back for a big chunk of the year, and students who live in that area that commute to universities in the region (112 dwellings this time), no further response was forthcoming.

Sandwell said the same, with its 500 dwellings consisting only of student residents.

From down cap-it-ol hill

In reality the majority used the same template. Most merely told me that their direct application process had been open for any resident in financial hardship that met the eligibility criteria – even though most students wouldn’t have been eligible once I went down the relevant rabbit hole.

Bracknell Foirest said that the council had used “existing datasets” to target an element of the funding, but full-time students were “not a specific cohort identified”. To be fair, it’s not as if the DWP passed on the data that the SLC has on household income – so neither Bracknell Forest nor the rest of the country’s authorities would have been able to make an assessment.

But they could always have thought about contacting the University of Reading, or Royal Holloway, to see if there was any intel? After all, 48 households get full student exemption from council tax in Bracknell Forest.

There is no university within Bracknell Forest.”, came the reply.

Bexley said its Voluntary Service Council ran an open application process for community groups to put their names forward to distribute Round 3 of the Household Support Fund in the borough – but no university or SU was on the list.

That the students in the 386 dwellings in the area fully exempted from CT probably didn’t attend a provider in that actual borough almost certainly never crossed its mind.

A significant number gave me sentences on a variation of “we encourage students to approach their university who have hardship funds” etc, like little echoes of the DfE line designed to get you to look over there instead of here.

Barnsley cheered me up. Barnsley College has received a sizeable circa £100k grant from the Household Support Scheme, distributed via its Student Services Funding Team to support student households who had been struggling with the rising cost of living the fund has been used to provide the following to students, both FE and HE – food support, energy cost support and wider essentials including clothing, hygiene packs and bedding. And it has numbers on the student households supported – 480 and counting across the multiple iterations.

That’s how you do it.

We talk a-bout rea-gan-om-ics

I know all the things that many have said to me already about this. Councils haven’t got enough as it is – but why would students facing poverty be othered just because the money is tight?

Councils weren’t allocated on the basis of student poverty. Yes, but why haven’t I heard of any lobbying from councils to change that?

Authority boundaries don’t easily map onto university patches and the DWP didn’t supply the data that would have helped. These are indeed decent logistical points. But 18 months on from the original announcement, and multiple iterations in, where has the lobbying been from the sector or the local government association on providing data that could have helped here?

And to the university senior manager that said to me the other day “well, our students aren’t poor like the locals are poor”, you need to look at your SU’s survey data, the household income data you get from the SLC to pay your bursaries out, or both. Sharpish.

The truth here is that local authorities don’t think of students as citizens, and too often universities don’t think of students as local citizens either – at least not when it comes to the relationship with the local authority.

They’re tourists – either pouring money into the local economy, urinating in gardens, singing on their way home and waking up the residents, or occasionally raising money for the poor but not actually being poor.

It’s nonsense, of course, and whether we’re talking about the immediacy of the schemes designed for this phase of the HSF, or the next decade of civic strategy, the sooner the sector corrects the perceptions about who its students are, where they’re from and realities of their economic precarity, the better.

2 responses to “Why don’t students count as people that need help from local authorities?

  1. There are lots of threads to this issue, but ultimately we really need to stop thinking of students as somehow different to the rest of the population.

    I have often wondered if students would be better off if the maintenance element of the student loan was replaced with access to universal credit and housing cost support for the duration of their studies.

    Parents should not be expected to financially support their adult children, whether they are students or not.

  2. There are some really good examples of where LAs have kicked in to support students – notably the London borough of Newham in partnership with the Newham Community Project.

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