You might recall that during the pandemic, then universities minister Michelle Donelan repeatedly spent the same little shard of extra money she had allocated to universities on different things.
One minute it was to help with housing costs for those who couldn’t get a rent discount – the next to help with not being able to get part time work. One week it was for PhD students whose research had been delayed, the next for parents who couldn’t work as they were home tutoring.
In Parliament alone we noticed 71 separate deployments of what we called at the time the “magic money twig” – until, to be honest, we started to care roughly as much as DfE obviously did about students.
The bad news is that it’s back – and worse, this time, there’s not even a twig – it’s just the same rotting, shrivelling tree trunk.
Broadly, for the best part of a decade the (Westminster) government has provided a top up of funds to universities for support for disadvantaged students called “student premium funding”, dating back to when there was all that talk of a “pupil premium” for disadvantaged pupils in schools funding. The idea has been that it goes on the costs universities face in supporting specific types of students to succeed.
As we mentioned here, early on in 2021, then Secretary of State Gavin Williamson actually cut the funding from £277 to £256m. There was £150m for FT students, £66m for PT students and £40m for Disabled students, all to be spent on a growing student population – so leaving less and less per head every year. And then, Covid hit.
To be fair, Donelan topped up the £256m a couple of times under pressure ostensibly from her own backbenchers – a lesson for anyone who argues that “lobbying the government” on students right now is pointless – it may well be, but backbenchers do have relatives and constituents that are struggling with the costs of putting students through university.
Amazingly, back at the end of March Zahawi and Donelan’s letter to OfS said that having had a big think, it didn’t think student hardship would be an issue this year:
The exceptional circumstances of the pandemic in academic year 2020/21 saw a sharp rise in student financial hardship… assessment of the probability of such exceptional circumstances prevailing in 2022/23 academic year has led us to discontinue this additional allocation… universities will continue to be able to support students in hardship through their own hardship funds and the student premium.”
And that – in the face of all the evidence about the cost of living crisis – remains the position. The confection that the press office is rolling out in response to pretty much every story about student hardship is as follows:
We have continued to increase support for living costs on an annual basis for students from the lowest-income households since the start of the pandemic, and they now have access to the largest ever amounts in cash terms.
We also asked the Office for Students to protect the £256m available to support disadvantaged students and those in need for the current financial year – which is in addition to universities’ own hardship funds.”
Let me annotate that for you:
We have continued to increase support for living costs on an annual basis for students from the lowest-income households [by significantly less than inflation] since the start of the pandemic, and they now have access to the largest ever amounts in cash terms [but are getting, in real terms, about £2,000 less than they were since the start of the pandemic].
We also asked the Office for Students to protect the £256m available to support disadvantaged students and and those in need for the current financial year [on the basis that the word “protect” sounds better than a cut in real terms that we expect to be spent on more things and more students while we’re at it] – which is in addition to universities’ own hardship funds [which are under pressure from the declining unit of resource and a failure of OfS to even talk about the Cost of Living crisis].”
Let me put this a different way. 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 3 percent was spent on hardship – the rest going on access, student success and progression. None of that work has gone away – so let’s guess that this year’s reduced student premium allocation of £256m has £7.29m of hardship funding in it.
But that was in the context of students most at risk of dropping out. This year, there’s more students, more students at risk, and more uses to put the money to. Yet DfE keeps quoting the £256m as if it’s a real thing. £256m would be nowhere near enough, let alone £7.29.
Will the nations do what they did during the pandemic and beat DfE’s deal? In Northern Ireland, Economy Minister Gordon Lyons has announced an additional £2.8 million in support for students – but it’s only for those studying in Northern Ireland.
We’re back to the same problem as during the pandemic – he has no way of getting money to the tens of thousands of NI students studying in the rest of the UK, and he’s resolved to not allow international students a share of it.
SDLP MLA Sinéad McLaughlin has said that the new funding does not go anywhere near enough to address the crisis that students will face this winter – and you’d have to agree given that it comes out at just under £60 a head – pretty pitiful really given NI already has the least generous maintenance package, and the pandemic hardship pots even in NI dwarfed this.