Forming the principle underpinning of an on insight brief on the subject, this OfS version undertaken by YouthSight with over 4,000 students in January and February tells us, for example, that the cost of living has most negatively impacted students’ mental wellbeing (56 per cent) and social life (54 per cent) over the last six months.
Over half (58 per cent) of students say the impact of cutting back on activities has had
a negative impact on their mental and/or physical health, over one in six (17 per cent) have considered dropping out because of the impact of the cost of living, only 4 in 10 are aware of hardship funding, bursaries and so on and just two out of five students agree that their university or college has done enough to support students.
Frustratingly, there are not many questions on outcomes – we get a version of the “have you considered dropping out” question (surely some students on Savanta’s database actually have) and nothing on completion confidence – only the impact on academic experience satisfaction, where first in family, ethnic minority, disabled and lower social grade students all report a negative impact.
That really does all suggest that this year’s NSS results should be benchmarked for characteristics before being published.
Oddly, hiding in the differentials is 50 per cent of females reporting a negative impact (14 per cent positive) versus 22 per cent of males saying it’s been a negative versus 52 per cent saying it’s been positive. That, as they say, deserves further research – not least because if it’s true, providers with a lot of male dominated courses should probably slash all their bursaries to get their NSS scores up.
The press release is nice to the sector insofar as it highlights all the good things that providers are doing to alleviate the pressures, although it does make the same mistake that UUK and the mission groups keep making by creating an impression that this isn’t a sector that should be a priority for additional student funding when all of these lovely schemes are in place.
Naturally, there’s not a word in any of the material on the failure of the student finance system to keep pace with inflation in England.
It’s not unhelpful stuff – but the big question is, what’s the point?
Last year, so urgent was it that providers do something about attainment in schools, that OfS’ Director for Fair Access and Participation John Blake wrote to all providers with an APP demanding variations to take it into account almost immediately.
One of the demands was an accessible summary – which means that any of the students or applicants impacted particularly by the cost of living crisis can see in simple terms a plan that was based on data from the mid 2010s, written in 2019, and now won’t have to be updated until 2024 for implementation in 2025.
I think OfS would struggle to say that current plans reflect a contemporary analysis of gaps or risk, and so the steps in them can’t be judged to be credible either. That’s straight up regulatory failure – and the contrast with issues like that weird spelling thing or the regulatory stick being wielded over grade inflation couldn’t be more stark.
The “plan problem” is true too of Student Protection Plans, of course. A combination of not wanting to share bad news and sudden events keeps resulting in universities announcing redundancy programmes while hosting “current” SPPs that suggest that all in the garden is rosy. This whole “have a plan, and we’ll judge if your analysis and actions are credible” model just isn’t working and is starting to look like a deep flaw in regulatory design.
Any university that misses its targets for access or success last, this or next year is just going to use OfS’ own insight brief as its defence – and fair enough. With the state in retreat from the financial baseline that providers thought was in place when APPs were written, it’s only a universal “new plan” or variations exercise that would reset expectations.
Would it really have been so hard for Blake to write to providers to say “we’re slowing down on the big APP reforms, but I need to see a variation of your current APP in light of the crisis and these findings”? What kind of provider would have been able to say no to that?
Blake would be the first to argue that providers saying “we did out best, but” isn’t good enough. Ironically, without setting out what would be good enough in this new context, that’s exactly what providers both should and will do. And it’s students that will suffer as a result.