The department for education (DfE) is to provide an extra £50 million to address student hardship caused by Covid-19.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan announced the increased financial support today (2 February), saying it would support thousands of students facing financial pressures such as additional accommodation costs, job losses, or expenses incurred while accessing their education online.
The additional £50 million brings the total spending on student hardship to £70 million for this financial year – £20 million in funding was announced in December.
The funding will be distributed by the Office for Students (OfS) directly to universities, who will distribute the funding and will be able to prioritise students most in need of help, although it has not yet decided how to share the £50 million out.
“This continues to be an incredibly difficult and challenging time for our students, and I am hugely grateful to all the university staff working hard to prioritise their health, wellbeing and learning during this pandemic,” said Michelle Donelan.
“The additional £50 million that we are announcing today will mean we have distributed £70m for hardship in this financial year alone – on top of the £256m of government-funded student premium which universities can use for student support this academic year.
“This additional support will provide real, tangible help for those students struggling financially as a result of the pandemic.
“We will continue to prioritise a full return to education as soon possible, in line with public health advice. I am also working with universities and professional bodies to ensure students can graduate as planned.”
While the additional funding is welcome, the government must also acknowledge that student hardship is just one of many increasingly difficult issues facing students, universities and staff at this time – Alistair Jarvis, Universities UK
The government announcement also welcomes the student rent rebates being issued by certain universities and accommodation providers to students unable to live in their term-time address, and asks all providers of student accommodation to consider students’ best interests and communicate clearly.
Responding to the government’s announcement, Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said the new funding was welcome but did not go far enough: “Financial hardship has been a growing problem throughout this pandemic, significantly affecting students’ mental health and their chances of progression. The government’s recognition of this through a further £50 million of funding this term is therefore a positive step, and universities will do all they can to ensure the funding reaches the students most in need.
“While the additional funding is welcome, the government must also acknowledge that student hardship is just one of many increasingly difficult issues facing students, universities and staff at this time. As the serious mental health impact of the pandemic continues to be felt, universities need further funding to alleviate the substantial increases in demand that university wellbeing and support services are experiencing.
“Although university staff are making huge efforts to offer high quality online learning, the government should provide support that recognises that students are missing out on the wider student experience that they would benefit from in a normal year.”
This government has repeatedly failed to prioritise education and has left staff, students and universities in limbo – Jo Grady, UCU
Emma Hardy, Labour’s shadow minister for universities said: “Students are facing unprecedented financial hardship. Thousands of students remain locked out of the jobs they need to support themselves and the government continues to trail far behind the Welsh Labour government in ensuring student hardship support.
“The government’s failure to control the spread of the virus is denying students the university experience they deserve. It is clearly unjust that many students are paying for services they are unable to access during lockdown.”
Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said: “Students should be praised for the way they have responded during the pandemic to the various national and local restrictions that have been put in place and to the blended and online learning models that have become a necessity. Our universities have worked hard to support students through this difficult time – investing more in wellbeing and mental health support as well as offering financial help to those struggling with accommodation and other living costs.
“It is good to see those measures further boosted by the Government with additional funds specifically for students facing difficulties with day-to-day living costs. This group is likely to be far wider than those who would normally be eligible for support through OfS student premium funding. We therefore look forward to working with Government and the OfS to look at how the funding is allocated so it can support as many of those who are in need as possible.”
The University and College Union (UCU) described the £50 million as a “sticking plaster”.
“This government has repeatedly failed to prioritise education and has left staff, students and universities in limbo,” said UCU general secretary Jo Grady.
“Whilst we are glad the government has finally recognised the mess their dithering and u-turns have created, it should not have taken students queueing for food banks, or waves of rent strikes, for the government to start acknowledging the scale of the problem.
“Small-scale funding packages like this are simply a sticking plaster and not the answer to the widespread problems facing the sector. The government needs to go further and provide proper funding to avoid irreparable long-term damage to the sector’s reputation. The government must also admit that mass movement of students back to their term-time accommodation is unsafe and pledge to keep all but essential university teaching online until the end of the current academic term.”
You might also like: Rent rebates: ‘conversations’ ongoing with private accommodation providers