£50m for student hardship in England

More money to support student hardship is always welcome, but questions remain regarding how best to get it to those who will benefit most.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Like clockwork, generous measures on student support from government in Wales and Scotland are followed by an altogether less impressive attempt from DfE.

To put things in perspective, today’s £50m equates to £25 per student in England (all students, all domiciles, all levels). This compares to the £20m offered in Scotland last week, averaging out as £78 per student; and the week befores’ £40m in Wales – £302 per student. This is just a volume measure – funds will of course be allocated by providers according to identified need in each case.

As with the previous magic money twig, the government can never quite resist overselling the multiple purposes to which the money might meaningfully be put to. This time, mentioned in the press release, the £50m is expected to cover:

  • International students
  • Those facing additional costs arising from having to maintain accommodation in more than one location
  • Students’ inability to maintain employment, such as a job based close to their term-time accommodation for which they cannot access the furlough scheme
  • Support for students to access teaching remotely (ie buy stuff to bridge the digital divide)

Of course, right now any money that might get to struggling students is good news – and this new movement from Westminster makes for a total of £70m (£45 per student) this academic year. As Michelle Donelan put it:

The additional £50 million that we are announcing today will mean we have distributed £70m for hardship in this financial year alone – on top of the £256m of government-funded student premium which universities can use for student support this academic year.

The funding, we are told, flows to providers via the Office for Students – the latter will be announcing how it will be allocated shortly, via a letter to accountable officers that will also be published on the OfS website. Nicola Dandridge told us:

This additional funding to help students facing financial hardship is welcome. We intend to distribute it as swiftly as possible to benefit those who are most in need. We will be writing to universities and colleges with more details shortly

The earlier £20m was allocated via formula – according to the numbers of full time (74 per cent) and part time students (10 per cent), and students eligible for the disabled student premium (15.5 per cent) at each provider.

What’s curious is what wasn’t taken into account – OfS was asked by DfE to allocate in a way that ensured:

funding is targeted towards those providers who recruit and support high numbers of disadvantaged students, reflecting where this funding is needed most to enable students to continue with their courses and achieve successful outcomes.

And clearly this is not what England’s regulator did – despite having the admittedly difficult to use access and participation plan data dashboard that would help point out where these students may be (at least, where it is historically probably we could find them). The speed of turnaround last time was welcome, but it could have been better targeted – this time we’d like to assume this allocation didn’t come as a surprise and that some work has been done on defining where these funds can make the most difference.

Here’s a plot of the regionally benchmarked population from low participation areas by provider that we’ve knocked up in 10 minutes. Low participation is a decent proxy (though not perfect) for disadvantage – the existence of regionally benchmarked data gives us more information. So using something like this should be the least we should expect.

[Full screen]

The framing of the allocation of extra funding to students as “hardship” in all parts of the UK so far also throws up some interesting devolution dilemmas, because the money goes to students through universities. That’s an issue given cross-border flows – as maintenance funding for students usually follows the student and their home domicile rather than the institution they choose. It all means that (for example) students from Wales studying in England will be getting considerably less access to help than counterparts that stayed to study in Wales – which surely is not a defensible position for the coalition in Wales in the long term?

Meanwhile seven vice chancellors not adjacent to the old 1994 group have been pitching a plan to reduce interest rates on loans during study. It’s clearly a regressive measure, meaning that Anthony Forster was struggling to define the benefit to students or any but the most well off graduates this morning on Radio 4. It seemed to be about the signal that the relaxation of interest rates during study for the Covid cohort would send – the cost would be only a little less than this morning’s £50m but the benefit to current students is pretty much zero. In calling for government support we should bear in mind that DfE and the Treasury have set their face against anything meaningful – anything we do get needs to be a direct benefit that can be used where it is needed most.

Updated 5 February

And here’s how OfS actually did it.

[Full screen]

The job of divvying this up between providers was naturally given to the Office for Students (OfS), and late on on Friday evening it revealed how much each provider would be getting. There’s a cover letter and an excel sheet with the allocations by provider on it.

What we were told on Monday was that:

Universities will be able to help students, including international students, impacted by the pandemic, for example those facing additional costs arising from having to maintain accommodation in more than one location or an inability to maintain employment, such as a job based close to their term-time accommodation for which they cannot access the furlough scheme, or to support students to access teaching remotely.”

You might start by asking yourself why it is that DfE only thinks that students studying at “Approved (fee cap)” providers are facing hardship, but even once you’ve whittled down the number eligible, it was always going to be tricky splitting £50m amongst 342 providers.

As is the way with these things, OfS got a letter on Tuesday from DfE explaining the thrust of the policy so it could be operationalised.

In it it is told to use the “existing student premium” funding mechanism as a basis for allocating funds to providers. That’s fine – but student premium funding is allocated on the basis of students who are “deemed to be most at risk of withdrawing from their studies because of their qualifications and age profile, and who therefore require additional investment to ensure their retention and success”. Is there a link to poverty/hardship/financial state of students in those circumstances? Probably. A strong enough one? Probably not.

But there’s a new thing in the letter as well. £40m of the £50m is to be prioritised for “rent-related hardship” in a way that “ensures those students renting student accommodation away from home have the maximum opportunity to benefit from it.”

As a policy steer from government to funding body, that’s really odd. Combining a proxy hardship/poverty measure with a proxy pandemic impact/costs measure is really complex.

So anyway. To pull this off OfS has taken £10m of the money and split it in the usual proportions between the student premium allocation for FT, PT and Disabled students – which is what it did with the £20m it got for similar purposes in December.

But for the remaining £40m, its proxy for “who’s renting” is to just ignore part-time students. So this chunk goes to providers based on their current full-time and diabled student student premium allocations.

So of the total £50m, we saw:

  • £40m prioritised for “rent-related hardship” – split between pro-rata allocations linked to full time and disabled student premiums.
  • £10m split between full time, part time, and disabled student premiums as with the £20m announced in December.

So, that makes:

  • £39.1 million pro rata to our allocations through the 2020-21 full-time student premium
  • £1.0 million pro rata to our allocations through the 2020-21 part-time student premium
  • £9.9 million pro rata to our allocations through the 2020-21 disabled students premium.

Funds are to be used for claims made after 2 February, and must be spent before 31 March 2021. It is explicitly not to be used in meeting provider’s own costs (for example in covering the costs of rent rebates already offered).

Upshot? If you’re a further education college group with 500 HE students almost all of whom are commuters, you get the same amount as a small and specialist higher education provider in London, almost all of whose students live away from home.

Could OfS have done better? At the very least HESA does collect data on who’s renting in each provider. But that’s not taken into account in the allocation.

It would also be useful to know where students live and what rents are like. DK has plotted that up on the site – again it’s not taking into account.

Whichever way you cut it, the allocations in that excel are woeful if you’re out raising expectations that this funding can help with rent. And we don’t begrudge FE providers getting the cash – they’ll have students in hardship. But *if* some of them tried to spend their allocation on the rent issue rather than general hardship, they’d have real difficulty.

What we have here is a poorly defined and confused policy steer that in turn has been implemented badly by the funding body.

One response to “£50m for student hardship in England

  1. [In defence of the OfS…]
    The full-time element of this funding (74.5%) made use of the FT “premium to support successful outcomes” – this has two components – numbers of students by the risk factor of entry qualifications, and a second element that is based on the risk factor of POLAR4 Q1/2 and entry qual.
    So the FT element of £20m was directly and indirectly (if low entry quals has any correlation with disadvantage) allocated based on the universities with highest numbers of students potentially in need.
    (So BCU got £395k, and UoB £88k)

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