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UK: hardship funding demand continues as cost of living worsens

At least seven British universities paid out over £100,000 in hardship funding to international students during the 2021/22 academic year, with one dishing out almost £1 million to struggling students, but some are now rolling back support despite the cost of living crisis. 

Some English universities spent six-figure sums on supporting non-UK students facing financial difficulties. Photo: iStock

Some universities paid out significantly less than others despite having large international student cohorts

Some English universities spent six-figure sums on supporting non-UK students facing financial difficulties in 2020/21, including Leeds (£145,630), Brunel (£155,377) and Durham (£100,611). 

The University of Exeter spent £968,367 on hardship funding for international students, almost double the amount it had paid out the previous year (£534,598). The university received over 1,600 requests for support from non-domestic students, the majority of which were granted. 

Scottish universities also paid out significant amounts, including the University of Aberdeen (£255,180), the University of Dundee (£620,742) and the University Glasgow (£413,231), after the Scottish government relaxed the rules to allow international students to access its higher education covid funding. 

The PIE collected these figures from a sample of universities across the UK via freedom of information requests. The results show uneven approaches to providing financial help to non-UK students, despite guidance from Universities UK International advising institutions to ensure all international students are eligible for some form of hardship support. 

Charley Robinson, head of global mobility policy at Universities UK International, said that universities made “huge steps” to support international students during the pandemic and that levels of support varied due to the needs and demographics of differing cohorts. 

Some universities paid out significantly less than others despite having large international student cohorts. The University of Bedfordshire, where nearly 40% of its 18,000 students are international, paid £13,829 in hardship funding in 2021/22, down from £305,397 in 2020/21. It received 34 applications and approved 14 of these. According to its website, the university’s hardship fund is currently only open to UK students. 

In some cases, institutions invested more in hardship funding in the 2021/22 academic year than they did in the previous year when the pandemic began. Durham University paid £100,611 to 12 international students in 2021/22, compared to £12,728 to three students in 2020/21. The university said the spike was due to Covid-19.

However most of the universities surveyed paid out less than the previous year, such as the University of Leicester (£384,291 in 2020/21 vs £62,711 in 2021/22) and the University of Bradford (£230,472 in 2020/21 vs £35,673 in 2021/22). 

The Office for Students provided extra funding in 2020 for English institutions to distribute to students facing money problems, accounting for the drop in hand outs across most universities. The University of Bedfordshire said it created a Covid Hardship Fund, which was accessible to all students, to distribute additional hardship funding from the government.

Nottingham Trent University said it had allocated £100,000 of this funding to international students in 2020/21, but that future awards were only made for “exceptional reasons”. Similarly, Bournemouth University said that it has returned to supporting students “on a case-by-case basis as and when they approach us for financial support”.

Although most international students have no legal recourse to public funds, UUKi advises that institutional hardship support, which is not counted as public funds, should still be available to non-domestic students. 

The University of Exeter, which had approximately 7,600 international students in the 2020/21 academic year, allows all students to apply for hardship funding, irrespective of fee-status. Similarly, Brunel University’s hardship fund is open to international students, but the institution’s website stipulates that students must be able to demonstrate they “made realistic financial provision” to fund their tuition fees and living costs.

“The current cost of living pressures are only making these differences more apparent, as some institutions are having to roll back on hardship funds”

Diana Beech, CEO at London Higher, which co-chaired UUKi’s hardship group, said that while there was greater “sector-wide awareness of the need to look out for international students” in times of hardship, not all higher education institutions are able to provide the same level of support “due to differences in resources across the sector”.

Beech added, “The current cost of living pressures are only making these differences more apparent, as some institutions are having to roll back on hardship funds in the face of tightening purse strings.”

So far this academic year, universities have continued to receive requests for help as the cost of living crisis impacts students. The University of Exeter had received 477 applications to its hardship fund at the time data was shared, while Cardiff University had received 232. Exeter has spent £224,710 so far this academic year. 

Anne Marie Graham, chief executive of UKCISA, said, “It’s important that institutions support their domestic and international students through the cost of living crisis. We encourage our member institutions to make hardship funds available to all students, and many international support offices will flag available funds to international students and make clear that applying to these funds is permitted under the terms of their visa conditions.”

Institutions are also providing non-monetary support to international students facing financial difficulties, including supermarket and food vouchers. Nottingham Trent University has frozen the rent at university-owned accommodation in line with last year’s price. 

“Universities across the UK are working proactively to help reduce the financial and mental burden being caused by the current rise in the cost of living,” Robinson said, adding that some universities have doubled or tripled their hardship funding. 

“Universities have to maintain the integrity of the UK student visa system”

“Notwithstanding, universities have to maintain the integrity of the UK student visa system, which requires students to demonstrate they have the funds to finance their studies. Hardship funding is targeted towards those who unexpectedly encounter financial difficulty during the course of their studies, and is not intended to offset or mitigate the cost of study in general.”

Beech called on the government to support universities and struggling students. 

“For as long as fees remain frozen and essential funding such as the London Weighting is withheld, universities in England – and particularly those in the capital – will feel the squeeze and will only be able to offer hardship support for so long. 

“Without an urgent intervention from the treasury to allocate emergency cost of living grants to universities to enable them to support their current student populations wherever they come from in the world, we risk reneging our compassion and duty of care to those who put their trust in a UK higher education.”

The UK government has since announced that it will provide an additional £15 million in hardship funding. The money will be distributed to universities to give to students who are struggling to cope with rising costs.

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