The Covid 19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the huge gaps which exist between students in terms of their access to technology, but also in access to Higher Education (HE) more broadly, and these gaps are largest and most impactful to students from the lowest socio-economic groups.
In the short term, current students face significant barriers accessing the appropriate technology with which they can fully engage with their studies while they are taking place in either through blended learning, or fully online. This can range from a slow and unstable internet connection through to having little to no access to a device of their own, or low-spec devices, all problems which were identified in Jisc’s Student Digital Experience Insights Survey 2020.
Over the years, the movement has spoken at length about mature students’ challenges in education with little to no support and zero action. Mature students are some of the most engaged student groups, who fight against all odds for the rights of all other student groups, while theirs are continually put on the back burner. Postgraduate students in Northern Ireland receive no Maintenance Support and only receive £5500 towards their tuition which averages at over £6000. When NI students travel to GB for Postgrad opportunities, they still fall under the Student Finance NI system even though the average cost of tuition across the UK is higher than in NI. This disproportionately affects students from widening participation backgrounds.
Disabled students’ support packages are heavily reduced for postgraduate students in England, while their disabilities do not magically disappear after undergraduate study! Wales have recognised this and amended their support for disabled postgraduate students.
In the longer term, students from all backgrounds face the prospect of severe economic impacts, which are likely to limit funding and/or employment opportunities with which to support themselves during their studies, however the impact is likely to fall far more heavily on the lowest socio-economic groups, which may limit their ability to access, or remain in, HE. This was demonstrated in the NUS’ Coronavirus and Students Survey, where 40% of respondents said that they had seen either a major or a moderate impact on their income as a result of Covid, and a further 35% (July 2020) noting that the income of someone who supports them financially had been impacted. Reduced financial resources while at University has long been identified as a risk to students being able to continue their studies, as well as significant connection between the financial resources available to a student and their choice of HE institution, both of which were highlighted in a May 2019 report by the Institute for Employment Studies.
Similarly, the true costs of living, studying and simply existing as part of a further and higher education space is too high, from the course costs to living costs, too many students are being priced out of their education and experience.
On-campus catering outlets, shops selling groceries, book shops selling core texts, on-campus laundry facilities, university housing, transport – all of these services, often run or managed by further and higher education institutions are turning a profit from fundamental parts of a students’ life in an education institution. These are services students cannot do without.
NUS has made clear their commitment to fighting for a “free, liberated, and truly accessible education for all.” NUS’ poverty commission research found that there is a worrying ‘poverty premium endemic’ for students in further and higher education, “which means students from working-class backgrounds often pay higher costs in order to access post-16 education as a consequence of class and poverty”.
There have also been ongoing ageist undertones in the student movement, evidenced by the number of officers/volunteers in national leadership positions over the years, which need curbing
When students cannot afford the catering outlets and shop prices, they don’t eat. When students cannot afford the core texts, they are priced out of success. When students cannot afford university housing, they become homeless. When students cannot afford the bus services, they become isolated. These costs, especially when run by educational institutions, should not be used to turn a profit. Keeping these costs down is a fundamental part of the fight for a truly free, liberated and accessible education.
Many risk either being left behind in that they may not be able to access HE at all due to financial limitations, or will have radically limited experiences once there through an inability to access appropriate technology. We, as a movement, need to recognise and give our support to those students who are currently limited from even having the most basic level of access to HE, which can be a life-changing force for many.
Not campaigning on this poses risks of non-completion of study, lowered grades, affects mental health and wellbeing, impacts future employment, and for our black students, further widens the attainment gap.
Students would receive a Real Living Student Wage that takes into account things that the Real Living Wage does not, and a Real Living Rent outlining what affordable accommodation looks like for our students. Universities should be lobbied to make clear the real costs of being a student and the additional activities they promote as being part of the student experience, such as engaging in sports and societies, eating on campus and accommodation beyond first-year university managed provisions.
A Further and Higher Education that doesn’t staddle students with extortionate course and living costs is an Education sector which is able to support, engage and further the lives of potential students from across the UK.
It is time for the student movement and our National Union to put their money where their mouths are and actually include mature students, a status which almost certainly comes with carer/parental responsibilities and demand and embed a suitable support package and policies for them to ensure a smoother student journey and better employment prospects after graduation. Postgraduate students from and in Northern Ireland would have access to maintenance supports to cover living costs.
Disabled students would have access to a financial pay-out, in addition to the Disabled students allowance. This would enable students with additional needs, the extra support for funding their living costs. Many disabled students face extra barriers to student jobs, (in bars and shops). Disabled post-graduate students, and FE/ Apprentices, don’t currently receive any extra maintenance support for their studies. Access to this Disabled Student Allowance, and the extra proposed pay-outs would help students feel supported and free from finance stress.
Disabled post-graduate students do not receive the same level of provision as undergraduate students. This is an unnecessary barrier to learning which needs to be addressed urgently
Postgraduate students deserve and should get the same level of support for their disabilities (visible or not), and should be fully supported for the entirety of their degree, be it part time or full time
Students would not be means-tested for their financial support, based on circumstances or geography. There would be fair access to support and accessible means of support for all postgrad students.
• NUS should continue to develop a proposal for the Living Income for Students.
• NUS should also Campaign against the additional costs of student life beyond simply the costs surrounding the course itself; continuing the work and research behind the poverty commission report.
The following ideas for implementation were added to this list as a result of workshop discussions at National Conference 2021
• Review/ campaign on transport costs for students and apprentices.
• Review/ campaign on council tax discounts for mature students, FE and apprentices to bring into line with HE undergrad.
• Review/ campaign on prescription costs for mature, FE and apprentices to bring into line with HE undergrads.
• Review/ campaign for funding for tools and equipment required for courses in particular for vocational courses that may require tools costing in excess of £600.
• Review/ campaign on working tax credits and parent tax credits for parent learners HE, FE and apprenticeships.
• Review/ campaign on equalising minimum wage and pushing for living wage increases across the board.
• NUS should campaign to turn senior management bonuses into subsidies for students
• NUS should ensure that international students should be taken into account when campaigning on the cost of living, especially around the hidden costs and other disadvantages that international students face
• NUS should ensure that FE & Apprentice students are taken into account when campaigning on the cost of living and support FE unions & NSOA to ensure these students are part of the conversation
• NUS should support and work with NUS Scotland on the cost of living for Scottish students especially around different age levels for the minimum wage and other Scottish-specific issues
• NUS should work with NUS-USI to ensure better financial support for their Postgraduate students. Continue support for NUS-USI's #FundOurPostgrads campaign lobbying for maintenance support for postgraduate students.
• NUS should ensure that Disabled students are taken into account when campaigning for the costs of living, especially around access to further financial support
• NUS should ensure that there are accessible means for postgraduate students and to ensure that there is fairer access for all postgraduate students
• A public acknowledgment from the NUS that students are struggling financially with the cost of living while senior university managers are claiming significant bonuses, and this is unfair!
• A commitment by the NUS to push forward petitions at universities to ask for the turning of bonus money for senior management into a subsidy for students
• Launch of a media campaign to publicize petitions and requests to colleges to make it clear that if universities refuse to agree to them they will look bad publicly
• Subsidies can be used for a variety of purposes, to help lower union shop prices, help international students with fees, aid apprentices, or other groups
• Offers both short and long term financial aid that is felt by all
In addition more clarity was received on devolved governments:
The devolved governments and funding bodies that are involved are different for each of the nations and applied differently within the devolved nations. For example, in Scotland, tuition fees are fully covered for Scottish students going to a Scottish university, however, tuition fees aren't fully covered were you to apply to university elsewhere in the UK. They also have different levels of financial support or amounts available.
It is also important to ensure that all types of students and apprentices are included, and all costs experienced by students and apprentices covered. For instance, the living costs in most cities are not covered by the base maintenance loan as you are left with so little after rent, the basic costs such as food or laundry. Not all students are eligible for additional support or have parents that they can rely on for help.
Commuter students have many limits they face because they don't always live in the city that they study in, either because they were not eligible to move or cannot afford the move. They are often priced out of opportunities that they could have achieved in some universities due to the cost of living. The Scottish budget has just introduced free travel for under 22's but you don't stop being a student when you are over this age and it is more likely to affect mature students in FE institutions. Often, they live far enough away that they cannot take up part-time work during term time.