Who’s falling between the cracks financially?

The Scottish Government has published a bunch of case studies of financial hardship faced by students this year.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Early on in the pandemic a whole range of stakeholders raised a concerns around student financial hardship as a result of lost or reduced employment – in April NUS for example found that for almost a third of students the income of someone who supported them financially had been “majorly” or “moderately” affected, and almost half were concerned about their ability to manage financially during the pandemic.

In response the Scottish Government launched both a Student Emergency Hardship Fund and a Summer Hardship Fund, and in May promised it would undertake research to better understand the range of financial hardship issues faced by students.

That’s what we now have here.

It’s worth saying before we get into this that the results from this study don’t provide any indication of the prevalence of the conditions described in the wider population of students in Scotland. In some ways that’s helpful – the case studies are not difficult to draw policy implications from and they’re all the more vivid for the method.

All but one of the working students interviewed described experiencing a loss of income as a result of lockdown restrictions – and in most cases, that loss of income had a substantial impact on the students’ ability to pay their bills and rent, as well as to make savings for the academic year ahead.

They were employed in a variety of sectors hit hard by Covid – hospitality and retail naturally pop up – and those on zero hours contracts found their hours reduced dramatically but with only limited / no furlough arrangements offered to compensate for that loss.

Students hit by loss of employment income managed to cope in three ways – cutting down on their spending, relying on benefits or the discretionary funds (some funded via the schemes mentioned above) and / or additional family support. Of course the longer the pandemic has gone on, the harder it becomes to rely on all three of these tactics.

Some students’ circumstances were closely connected with the circumstances of their partners – and so the wider job market situation and threat of job losses affecting their partners had a clear impact on their own livelihoods, a problem exacerbated when the student had caring responsibilities.

And in a couple of more extreme cases, the interplay of personal circumstances (such as being an international student or an estranged student with no family support) and external factors such as limited work availability “compounded the difficult financial situation” of the students who had very limited opportunities to find alternative means of support.

Most who reported loss of income chose to seek alternative employment – but struggled. Some (and remember these were students already working their way through study) reported having applied for benefits or financial support, or used credit cards and overdraft facilities to help pay their rent and utility bills.

Particularly upsetting is the sense that a number of the students interviewed would have benefited financially from being able to study remotely for the year (or at least the term), but of course in the end were effectively told to “return” to campus only for many to be studying online in the process. One student with childcare responsibilities explained how their partner had decided to take on full time study to be able to access the safety of student funding, following the loss of their job.

In some circumstances in Scotland students can leave student housing early without financial penalty – but this is an escape strategy, hardly a policy goal. And in any event, other housing related issues reported to institutions in the research included private rental contracts which could not be broken even when the students had left, rental contracts for the full house that had to be paid even if other sharing students had left, and live-in landlords removing students out of concern for their own health.

International students often get forgotten in these sorts of debates, but here the economic situation in the students’ countries of origin was a factor compounding their own financial circumstances in some of the examples. As a result of visa restrictions, one student could not work more than 20 hours a week and relied on lab assistant work at their university – a job that has became unavailable as a result of lockdown.

Care experienced and estranged students were also a focus. One estranged student lost the bulk of their hours as a delivery driver with the company refusing to close down and offer furlough to their staff – and the student needed to access commercial credit to just pay off the arrears on rent and bills.

Despite the two funds mentioned, the whole situation leaves some serious gaps for students facing hardship this academic year. The report highlights accommodation issues for students housed in the wider private rented sector (i.e. not PBSA or university / college run halls), and consideration of continued and increased access to discretionary funds as a priority.

More broadly, right around the UK we continue to run student funding systems that assume that students will have access to part time work (both term term and during the summer) and parental income support to support them during study – and it’s all under pressure.

There’s a popular perception that students spend money frivolously – and while some costs have undoubtedly reduced during the pandemic, previous research has told us that in any given city we probably had one group of students out socialising while another worked for them in the venues where they were socialising to make ends meet.

Yet in three of the four nations, we’re depending on discretionary funds to top up hardship funds to get us through the year rather than something more systematic and structural – and in England we’re pretending to be funding solutions while repeatedly excluding students even from basics like the self-isolation support offered to others.

Put another way – everything that Lucy Hunter Blackburn said for us on the site in March turned out to be true. Before a slew of students whose life chances we’re supposed to be transforming fall through some more cracks, can we implement her proposals on student loans now please?

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