Student hardship: response needed

How did Staffordshire University distribute almost £1m in Covid-19 hardship funds?

There is no doubt that the last 12 months have been incredibly testing for university students across the UK.

Like all of us, every aspect of their everyday lives has been touched by the global pandemic. They’ve had a tumultuous time, starting from when they were sent home from university in the middle of March 2020 as part of national measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, through to a return to campus in September and then another national lockdown and more restrictions.

Throughout all this we have seen a firm commitment from across our student body to continue with studies and keep their communities safe.

Inevitably this has come at a financial cost to students and as a university, working alongside our students’ union, we are committed to helping those who need our support in every way possible.

Over the course of the last few weeks, Staffordshire University has helped thousands of students who have found themselves in financial difficulty – with almost £1m being distributed in hardship funds.

The university, which has social mobility at the heart of its purpose, has a strong track record of helping to address inequality of opportunity that prevents many people from reaching their full potential.

Long before funding assistance from the government had been provided, the university was taking measures to help students affected by digital poverty through laptops loans and an increase in software licences as well as wifi extensions.

We were aware the pandemic had worsened digital poverty. We were also conscious that due to Covid-19, large numbers of young people are now in the jobs market. One in three young people under 25 are employed in the three sectors most affected – travel, hospitality and retail.

Our latest initiative involved the setting up of a Covid-19 Response Fund and it has shone a light on the scale of the challenge.

Initially, Staffordshire University was awarded £265,000 from the government’s funding package to address student hardship, distributed via the Office for Students (OfS). This was to be handed out to those in need by 31 March, 2021.

The university and the students’ union worked together to develop an offer based on three grants to support digital poverty, home working and general living to support rent, food and bill payments.

To reach those most in need, as quickly as possible, we set up an easy-to-use system to distribute grants. The web-based form required student authentication, confirmation of grant needs and a supporting statement.

While it has been fantastic that we were able to help thousands of students, it doesn’t mean the problem
has been solved

The application forms would then be triaged by three separate teams from across student services, the students’ union and digital services to triangulate the awards to ensure parity and equity.

The team involved used a SharePoint Site, Microsoft Forms and Microsoft Flow in order to automate the application and approvals process – harnessing technology to make sure we could respond speedily.

Within three hours of opening, the fund had received hundreds of applications, demonstrating the scale of the need for financial support. The assistance we could offer grew as the university then received additional funds from OfS to the value of £623,000, which meant we could meet initial demand and extend the application date further.

In addition, money was also made available from the university’s Horizon Fund as well as other grants schemes already in place.

Through partnership working we identified key groups to ensure they were aware of the support available. Our finance team worked to find innovative solutions to ensure payment reached applicants rapidly. It was a true team effort to support as many people as possible as quickly as we could.

In addition to grant support, we increased the number of laptops available for loan, extending to those households with children who are home schooling and need additional devices. The loan laptops were couriered out to them to ensure adherence to government guidelines on travel.

All students with an immediate need were referred to our support funds and food banks. We have seen a marked increase in take up in both services as a result of proactively reaching out.

In total, the Covid-19 Response Fund received nearly 3,000 applications.

Of course, while it has been fantastic that we were able to help thousands of students, it doesn’t mean the problem has been solved.

Student hardship is a very real and current problem, and more steps need to be taken to help those who are in need.

For Staffordshire University, that work will involve digging further ‘under the bonnet’ to uncover where the need is, what has caused it and, crucially, what we can to do help.

Further work includes beginning a demographic analysis of applications and we will be following up with grant recipients to ascertain impact.
We will continue to work with our Students’ Union to help those in need and will do all we can to help students and provide them with the opportunities and resources to future-proof the rest of their lives.

There is now hopeful light at the end of the tunnel – with the vaccine rollout continuing at pace and a route out of lockdown mapped out by our government – but the financial impact caused by the pandemic will be with us for a long time to come.

It is imperative that students who have been affected financially are not forgotten and more support is offered so that they can continue their journey towards brighter futures.

Nuala Devlin is executive dean of student services at Staffordshire University

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