The government should consider more than doubling existing student premium funding to £700 million to tackle the growing problem of student hardship, a bi-partisan group of parliamentarians said today.
The all-party parliamentary group for students praised the approach of the Welsh government – which has spent an estimated £50 million tackling Covid-related student hardship – and urged ministers in England to increase funds proportionately.
The parliamentary group for students, which comprises MPs and peers from across the political spectrum, counts former universities minister David Willetts among its members.
The funds would cover “properties [students] cannot access, lost income, digital poverty and other unexpected costs”, the panel’s report said.
The report released today estimated that the £50 million student hardship fund in Wales equated to a £378-per-student package: it said students in England required a similar sum, suggested that the government “speedily” consider an estimated £700-million fund.
The government said it would spend £256 million this academic year through student premium funding – and this autumn topped the fund up with an additional £20 million. The APPG said much of the ‘extra’ £20 million was reinstated cuts to student premium funding – the £256-million student premium pot had recently been cut by £16 million and represented only a £4-million boost on typical annual spending.
A November survey of over 4,000 students by the National Union of Students suggested more than two-thirds of students in rented accommodation are concerned they cannot afford to pay their landlords. Around a quarter of respondents had, at that point, already been unable to pay rent (22%) or bills (27%).
APPG member Lord Willetts yesterday appeared on a webinar hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) where he called upon the government to tackle students’ “genuine grievances”.
“I would like to see a larger hardship fund. I think we need to be tougher on landlords on helping particularly students who are told to stay away but have a contractual obligation to pay rent for accommodation they can’t use. I think there are genuine grievances there. And that’s what I would focus on,” said the Tory peer, who held ministerial responsibility for universities between 2010 to 2014.
With increased pressure on university budgets – through online teaching, student rent rebates and stretched hardship funds – this emergency cash “is the best way to fulfil the government’s responsibility to sustain the universities sector during the crisis,” the panel said. Funds should be well-advertised, paid directly to students and issued on a “consistent criteria…equitable across universities”, the report recommended.
Universities and mission groups told the APPG that additional hardship funding, and increasing student premium funding, would help address student concerns and target support where the need is greatest. University Alliance recommended the government approve supplementary student maintenance loans – with a proportion issued as a grant, on either a blanket or targeted basis.
The parliamentarians urged the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to encourage landlords to release students from rent obligations. Possible solutions include a council tax fund for properties vacated early “to avoid landlords paying charges for releasing tenants from their contracts” and “increased flexibility to re-let accommodation to different types of tenants temporarily without a permanent licensing change”.
Evidence from the last academic year showed that, despite the national lockdown, 28% of first-year students and 71% of students in second or subsequent years paid rent between March–July last year.
Tuition fee refunds
The APPG for students also discounted calls for student refunds, arguing it “would not assist the majority of students”. Instead, it argued the government should establish a ‘Covid Student Learning Remediation Fund’, which prioritises one-year postgraduate taught students and final-year undergraduates, to replace lost learning time. UKRI studentships for postgraduate research students should be extended if lockdown has stopped students accessing facilities and resources.
The fund could pay for additional summer and autumn programmes that compensate for missed teaching and learning experiences, networking, field trips, skills development and access to resources and specialist facilities. Alongside the fund, the group advised the government “work with universities to ensure that there is a national ‘safety net’ to maintain academic integrity across institutions”, which acknowledges “the practical, social and emotional challenges they have had to face as a result of the pandemic”. The sector is split on whether to offer students so-called no-detriment policies ahead of 2021 exam results.
Speaking yesterday (Thursday 28 June) during the Hepi webinar on student fees and funding, Lord Willetts described the clamour for tuition fees as “dangerous”. A tuition fee cut would be meaningless to most students because many will never near repaying the entire tuition fee – thereby rendering it a cut to only the highest-paid graduates, Lord Willetts said.
“I think a fee refund is worse than a bad idea: it’s a dangerous idea. It seems to be clear, it brings no benefit to students today. In fact, it damages the student because what happens is the loan made payable to the university for their education is smaller, so the university has less money to help and educate that student today.”
Lord Willetts added: “My fear is that if everybody keeps on talking about it, it might actually happen. It’s perfectly clear how it would happen, which is simply there would be an appeal not to fiscal illusion but to ‘fee illusion’; the government would proudly announce cutting fees by 1000 pounds and students will discover they received nothing and universities would discover a loss of £1000 per student.”
Alan Roff, the former deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Central Lancashire and the author of a recent Hepi report calling for tuition fee reforms, was a panellist on the Hepi webinar. Although not in favour of tuition fee refunds, Roff argued the only fair way to reducing tuition fees would be a change to the repayment threshold.
“If you want to make refunds to graduates who have been affected by this year’s Covid, you should raise the threshold from £27,000 up to £28,000 pounds, or whatever. That way all graduates get a reduction in their repayments straight away and over 30 years.”
A report from The Institute for Fiscal Studies said refunding tuition fees would only benefit the highest-earning graduates and government coffers.
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS vice-president for higher education, said: “This report clearly spells out the issues that students are facing and we would fully support the calls for a substantial increase to hardship funding, maintenance grants, allowing students to leave tenancy contracts and a national ‘safety net’ to ensure students can progress.
“It is also important to look at the needs for other groups of students, including international students. They deserve justice for the disruption they have faced; including having to access their lectures and exams in entirely different timezones, or moving to a new country only to be locked down. We are also delighted that the group has acknowledged the issues faced by PGR students and the need for extensions to funding for their projects.
“Students deserve better than to be stuck paying rent for accommodation they cannot access or afford, missing out on learning because of a lack of technology and being unable to progress through education. These recommendations would go some way to putting these things right.”
The APPG for Students includes members from the Labour, Conservative, Scottish Nationalist, Liberal Democrat and Green parties.
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