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Student Hardship Funds to Triple in UK Universities

Student Hardship Funds to Triple in UK Universities
READING PROGRESS

Students' struggle to cope with the current cost of living crisis is now apparent to university and student leaders in England and Wales. 

Amid fear of widespread dropouts and the ministers not offering more support, hardship funds across England and Wales universities are being doubled or tripled to combat the anticipated “unprecedented” demand from students due to their current struggle with the cost of living. 

Some of the signs of students struggling with the current cost of the living crisis were apparent to university and student leaders mere days into the new academic year. These signs mainly included working 40-hour weeks, being at risk of homelessness, and not being able to afford their books and course materials.

General inflation along with a “chunky real-term cut” to the value of maintenance loans, which increased by 2.3% this year despite the inflation rate being 10%, is what the students are currently facing. This, as well as the decreased support from families, who were dealing with the increasing household bills, is what further enhanced the students’ struggles, according to Charlie Jeffery, the vice-chancellor of York University. 

“That’s threefold pressure on students, which hasn’t yet been mitigated significantly by government measures – most so far just don’t reach students,” He said.

Jeffery also added that he and other vice-chancellors from the research-intensive Russell Group had proceeded to write to the education secretary to ask for increased maintenance loans and a reintroduction of the pandemic hardship payments.

Free meals, energy grants, increased bursaries, and rent freezes were introduced in the meantime by vice-chancellors in efforts to boost their universities’ packages and help students survive and make ends meet in the current crisis. 

Sunderland University as an institution has tripled its hardship bursary as well as widened its eligibility requirements by about 20% as it has already received a bit of extra support in the past two years, this is according to the university’s vice-chancellor, David Bell. 

“We’ve got enough evidence to suggest the demand is rising – last year our hardship funding was fully spent up, and this year we decided to put in quite a bit more money.” He said. 

Serious cases of financial need that are far more urgent than usual are being seen by the University of Wales’ support teams. The University of East London has also reported receiving several “unprecedented” calls from students facing homelessness as well as those wondering when bursary applications would open, this is with the knowledge that the university has already doubled hardship funds.

Students who miss out on socialising and the rites of passage at school are susceptible to mental health impacts, and fears are growing about the issue.

The estimated gap between the average UK maintenance loan and living costs is set at around £340, which as found by a survey from NUS Wales in the summer affected the mental well-being of 90% of the students. 

The impact of isolation on students who are struggling financially and thus can’t afford to socialise and hang out with friends is an issue that worries the President of NUS Wales, Orla Tarn. A student reported to Tarn that after the generous financial aid package they received from Wales, they have just £100 to last the term after paying rent and bills.

Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, has received written motions from Tarn and over 150 student leaders from 80 different universities, urging him to include student support in his medium-term fiscal plan on October 31st to ease the “profound impact on students’ ability to learn”, with around three-quarters of the students being unable to afford basic and essential course materials, and with one in three students living on barely£50 a month after paying rent and bills.

 

In a statement by The NUS president for higher education, Chloe Field, she said: “In the chancellor’s statement the government once again failed to recognise the serious impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on student communities.”

 “We understand global inflationary pressures are squeezing household finances and people are worried about covering the basics.” Said a spokesperson for the Department for Education. 

“Students who are worried about making ends meet should speak to their university about the support they can access. This year, universities [in England] can boost their hardship funds by drawing on up to £261m we have made available through the Office for Students.” They continued.

According to vice-chancellors, however, budgets at universities are already stretched too thin as they grapple with the current inflation and the eroded tuition fee value. 

“We are facing real challenges in balancing out our priorities, and while we are very much focused on supporting our students, that means other stuff goes down the list,” Jeffrey noted. 

“At some point, recognising it’s not the most propitious of moments now, we need a much fuller conversation nationally about how we produce a system for funding undergraduate higher education which works because the current one does not,” He went on.

A fear that more students would eventually drop out of university because they are unable to afford it is common among many, especially Amanda Broderick, who is the vice-chancellor of the University of East London. With the drop-out rate already showing a 23% annual increase in student withdrawals, as published by the Student Loan Company in September, Broderick’s fears are not unwarranted. 

“For us not to be able to support our students through economically challenging times would be an absolute travesty,” She said.

The cost-of-living crisis’ impact was broader and deeper than that of the pandemic had been, according to the vice-chancellor of the University of South Wales, Ben Calvert. 

He also added that since parents currently have less money to spare, even 18-year-old students from middle income families, who receive a lesser amount of state funding, are susceptible to struggle. 

Those who are affected the most are probably students over the age of 25, who would probably favour employment over training for vital public service jobs like nursing or social work. 

“We can’t afford in Wales to have fewer nurses coming into the system,” He said.


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