“This continues to be an incredibly difficult and challenging time for our students, and I am hugely grateful to all the university staff working hard to prioritise their health, wellbeing and learning during this pandemic,” said universities minister Michelle Donelan.
“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,” she continued.
“This additional support will provide real, tangible help for those students struggling financially as a result of the pandemic.”
“This additional support will provide real, tangible help for those students struggling financially”
An initial £20m fund was created for students last December. While that funding prioritised providers with high numbers of disadvantaged students, full-time students and aimed to make funds accessible to students “as quickly as possible”, the Department for Education said it hadn’t yet finalised whether the new funds will be distributed in the same way.
However, the government did say that universities, which will be given the funding from the Office for Students, are “best placed to assess student hardship locally”.
Those hardships include loss of jobs, difficulties accessing online learning and costs associated with paying for accommodation students are not using. Some international students in London have also reported using food banks and living with multiple people in a single room due to financial difficulties.
“It is good to see those measures further boosted by the government with additional funds specifically for students facing difficulties with day-to-day living costs,” said Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group.
“This group is likely to be far wider than those who would normally be eligible for support through OfS student premium funding. We therefore look forward to working with government and the OfS to look at how the funding is allocated so it can support as many of those who are in need as possible.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, called the move a “positive step” and said “universities will do all they can to ensure the funding reaches the students most in need”.
However, chief executive of Independent HE Alex Proudfoot noted that the funds will not cover all students in the UK. It’s extremely rare for a university to extend any of its hardship funds to partner institutions, such as pathway colleges, IHE highlighted.
Students enrolled at providers not in the OfS Approved Fee Cap category will also not be eligible. IHE estimates there are over 100 uncapped fee providers in the UK – the 69 OfS approved uncapped fee providers, in addition to other private providers that are not registered with the body.
Jarvis at UUK also noted that “the government must also acknowledge that student hardship is just one of many increasingly difficult issues facing students, universities and staff at this time”.
“As the serious mental health impact of the pandemic continues to be felt, universities need further funding to alleviate the substantial increases in demand that university wellbeing and support services are experiencing,” he said.
“Although university staff are making huge efforts to offer high quality online learning, the government should provide support that recognises that students are missing out on the wider student experience that they would benefit from in a normal year.”
According to a survey conducted by the National Union of Students in December 2019, 52% of students said their mental health has deteriorated or been negatively affected due to the pandemic, yet only 20% have sought support. Of those that did, 57% were satisfied with the help they received.
The announcement comes behind the Welsh Government earmarking £40m for vulnerable students in January, along with Scotland bringing out a £30m fund in the same month. Northern Ireland began providing Covid-19 financial support for students as long ago as May and June 2020.
Scotland’s deputy first minister John Swinney further said that they were supporting institutions, “many of which have lost revenue by giving students rent refunds or rebates, with an additional £10 million”.
NUS national president Larissa Kennedy said that the announcement is “a testament to the hard work and campaigning of students and students’ unions”.
“Many students are currently under extreme financial pressure as a result of the pandemic: they are falling behind on their rent and bills, and needing to access food banks,” she said.
“However, this will not be enough to tackle the scale of the issue,” Kennedy continued, suggesting if the government in Westminster had matched the hardship funding being made available in Wales, the amount needed would be more than £700m.
“The pandemic has exposed the flaws at the core of our education system – it functions at the expense of students’ mental health and wellbeing, and through our financial exploitation. Many students will still be paying rent for housing they can’t access or can’t afford – to deliver true economic justice, the Treasury must underwrite this,” she urged.
“Many students will still be paying rent for housing they can’t access or can’t afford”
“We also need a long term solution to ensure that no student suffers in this way again.
“The government must adopt a new vision for education, starting with a return to maintenance grant funding and a boost in how much students can access, redressing extortionate housing costs, and moving towards fully funded education so students are never pushed into these kinds of dire financial situations.”
Update (15:50 GMT): this story has been updated to include comment from Independent HE.