Governments must intervene now to support students; universities cannot do this alone

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By Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor at UWE Bristol

The growing calls across the country to refund tuition fees are impossible to ignore. What’s more, they are understandable. Whilst students have still been able to meet learning outcomes, progress and graduate, thanks to the hard work and dedication of staff across the higher education sector, there can be no question that they have faced significant upheaval over the last 10 months.

We now need the Government to work with us to send a powerful signal to students and society that they too are prepared to support a generation of graduates who face a uniquely challenging jobs market, and that they will tackle the growing inequalities created by Covid-19.

The Minister unfortunately fell short of this in the ‘STUDENT MESSAGE’ shared on Twitter, which offered very little in the way of meaningful reassurance for learners and showed heavy disdain for universities. Having worked tirelessly to protect the student experience and provide high-quality teaching throughout the pandemic, universities were accused of not working hard enough to ‘maintain the quality, quantity and accessibility of tuition’ and told that university fees are a matter for universities alone.

There is no denying that even with the continued dedication of university staff, students are having a very different university experience from what they might have expected. Our staff have dug deep to support our students, demonstrating the levels of sustained innovation and commitment needed to match a national crisis. Learning outcomes are being assessed and achieved against degree and professional standards. But students are rightly asking for more – they are asking for support for their futures that universities cannot provide alone.  

Universities have already invested heavily to support students through these difficult times; providing additional IT and digital resources, hardship funds and expanding wellbeing support. This has all been unbudgeted and falls outside of normal expenditure by many millions of pounds per institution.

In addition, universities have faced increased costs to create Covid-secure campuses and environments, and many universities, like us, have spent millions refunding students for the university-owned accommodation that was left empty in the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns.

But even with these interventions, most students are still significantly disadvantaged and in danger of being forced to drop out of their studies. They have lost access to vital part-time work and much needed income that allows them to survive and stay in education. Many are falling deeper into debt which is impacting on their mental health. The vast majority of students who are in private accommodation are still paying rent to their landlords for unused accommodation, just as they did in 2020. Universities have increased hardship funds but they are being overwhelmed by the demand.

The Government points to £20m additional funding and the repurposing of £265m exisiting funding designed to be used on other prioirties, now made available to support those most in need of support in these exceptional circumstances. For my own University, with around 30,000 students, the new funding delivered around £9 per head. Whilst welcome, this didn’t address the significant challenges the student population is facing, as have already been recognised in Wales and Scotland.

Throughout this crisis, universities have received minimal financial support from the Government and have only been able to furlough very few staff due to universities being largely publicly funded.

This is despite the much broader role Universities have also continued to play in their communities, with many volunteering crucial support to the NHS – stepping up to offer vital facilities, capacity and equipment, and frontline staff and training.

With university finances increasingly fragile I call on the Government to play their part.

What is the ask?

It is clear that the best and fairest way to support this generation is by reducing their student debt. This would demonstrate the Government’s ongoing commitment to the graduates of the Covid-19 era, making their repayments more affordable as the UK economy starts its long recovery from the effects of Covid-19.

I recognise that there have been many calls on government support during the pandemic. All parts of society have been hit. We need fair ways of helping all students disadvantaged by this crisis. Action needs to be taken to:

  1. Reduce and reprofile student loan debts, by reducing the interest rates being accrued on these loans during the pandemic disruption.
  2. Increase maintenance grants and hardship funds for the most disadvantaged students to protect their futures.  
  3. Provide additional funding for universities to support mental health and wellbeing and to maximise the summer experience to add as much value as possible during the summer term.

Undergraduate university teaching is funded, in the main, through the Treasury via the Student Loan Company, with 25% of students taking out a loan expected to repay in full. These adjustments can therefore only be made by Government itself. Whilst there may be a need to review the way in which Higher Education and Further Education is funded in the future, that debate is still to come. For now, universities are doing what they can with their limited resources, but the Government has a crucial role to play to ensure equitable solutions are in place which will catch all students at risk of slipping through the system.

Let’s not fail a generation. Universities and our graduates will play a vital role in the post-pandemic recovery – providing the skilled workforce, innovation and creativity this country needs to build back better and stronger. Together we must protect their future.

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