The abrupt shutdown of the UK economy in late March quickly exposed the precarious existence of students who rely on extra income from part-time jobs. These students were hit much harder than those who have family support, and this inequality in higher education has remained hidden in our institutions for years despite being the biggest elephant in the room. Universities are reacting now to pleas for hardship funds without knowing the true depth of the problem.
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You might assume that universities have some idea of how many of their students are employed during term-time, but there is limited data. I sent a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to every university in the UK to find out how they monitor this, and out of 80 responses, only eight knew how many hours their students spent in paid employment, and just two had any information that could link hours worked to academic attainment.
This chimes with my 37-year experience as a lecturer. Many of my students had jobs and struggled with their studies as a result. Despite those of us in the front line knowing this, university management turned a blind eye, even though surveys, such as those from Advance HE, show that it is widespread.
This matters because we know that term-time work has a negative effect on studies. A 2005 survey warned that students who work 16 hours and over have just a 60% chance of achieving a 2:1 or above compared to their peers who do not work during term-time.
The prevailing view in universities is that if students keep their term-time work under 10 hours per week, it will not affect their studies. But there is little firm data to back this up and universities often set their maximum recommended working hours above 10 hours per week, and sometimes as high as 20.
These students are now in desperate need of hardship funds. While my FOI responses suggested that there is plenty of good practice on this across universities – and many want to expand their bursary schemes in response to coronavirus – the problem is that these efforts are piecemeal since neither the government nor the regulator, the Office for Students, provide guidance.
Many students have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic and are struggling to make ends meet, yet the government’s £46m support package only covers two months, and promises much but delivers little. Universities can only divert funds to their struggling students from their existing access and participation plans. In contrast, the Scottish government recognised that more would be needed and offered another £5m in extra hardship payments for students. A further top-up planned for the summer months will not be enough.
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Without a proper coordinated strategy, the coronavirus pandemic risks resulting in a massive hit to widening access for an increasing number of disadvantaged students. Our universities are just beginning to realise the extent of the problem, and are worrying about how they can pay for it. This is a problem that will not go away in the summer.
Putting students first with a government-led taskforce on student support is the best way forward. It should recognise that funds could be more effectively channelled to all universities by offering clear incentives to students to carry on with their degrees. A failure to do this could see many deferring or dropping out on financial grounds. Universities cannot be expected to carry this burden in a piecemeal manner for much longer. Without more decisive action led by the government, the small gains in widening access for disadvantaged students made over the past few years will dissolve – and then only students with family capital behind them will be able to take advantage of the opportunities on offer.
Mike Larkin writes a blog and is a retired lecturer from Queen’s University Belfast
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