Vice chancellors call for the return of the student grant

I’m often critical of Universities UK’s almost exclusive focus on the finances of universities in its lobbying and campaigning work - but this year’s eve-of-conference push is all about the principal beneficiaries of these charities - students.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

“Incoming government urged to work with universities to help students through cost of living crisis” is the headline, grounded in some Savanta ComRes polling that UUK says shows financial hardship among students is building to “crisis point”.

The headlines here are that 67 per cent of students in higher education are concerned about managing their living costs this autumn – and of those, over half (55 per cent) say this might prevent them from continuing their studies.

That “drop out” risk headline is the hook that much of the media coverage has gone for – but that worries me for multiple reasons. When NUS and others have ever warned about the relationship between student finance and recruitment, history, bitter experience and even previous research tells us that students tend to underestimate how much money they’ll need – and so still enrol. Then sunk costs, family pressure and other trapping mechanisms mean that they’ll hang on by a thread rather than drop out. No point crying wolf.

The poll question was “you said that you feel concerned about your living costs at university or another higher education institution. How likely is this to impact on your ability to continue studying in the autumn?” Students ticking “very” or “quite” could mean a crappier experience and a harder slog rather than showing up in non-continuation stats.

And anyway, is it wise right now to be arguing that unless something is done, students will drop out? Underneath the Telegraph’s coverage, the first comment as I type is as follows, and I expect it’s fairly representative of the views of its readership:

Good. We have too many students doing useless subjects without a chance in hell that they will repay their tuition fees. If cost of living considerations make some decide not to go to uni but to get a job instead, that would be a good outcome. The worst possible outcome would be to throw more money their way.”

Why aren’t we able to advance an argument that is about basic living standards that we afford other citizens – and even then through a loan? There have been endless studies about the impact on attainment for a start. Why does it always have to be about the impact on participation rather than people?

The actual data tablets offer more nuance. On the impact on studies question, for example, PGTs are skewing the figures up – likely partly a result of experience and partly a result of unregulated PGT fees eating up an increasing proportion of the available loan. But broadly on all the splits – first in family, mature, social grade and so on – the figures paint the grim picture that we’d expect.

There are five demands from Universities UK to address it all. First is targeted government hardship funding for UK students – although as in other parts of society, the impacts are starting to look so universal that targeting starts to become meaningless.

Next is the “reinstatement of maintenance grants” for those most in need. Apart from forgetting that a component of the systems in Scotland and Wales is already non-repayable, we have to be careful here to avoid the Augar proposal of swapping a chunk of loan for grant. Those on the lowest incomes tend to have the worst post-graduate labour market outcomes – and so for them a swap makes little difference either during or after studies. They need more cash in their actual pocket, not a notionally different figure in the bottom right hand corner of their SLC statement.

Next is action to ensure that support for students is protected against inflation – fair enough, and presumably a reference to that compound impact of under-predicting inflation problem we’ve talked about before. There’s also a call for increased financial support for postgraduate researchers (which suggests that UUK weren’t aware of the UKRI decision on Friday lunchtime when the press release was sent out) and “ensuring that any government action to support people with rising costs, such as energy, can be accessed by students across the UK, including those in halls.”

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