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How the shutdown of the student economy is hitting the finances, health and educational prospects of care leavers and estranged students

  • 11 May 2020
  • By Eluned Parrott

This blog was kindly contributed by Eluned Parrott, Director of the Unite Foundation, a charity that provides scholarships and support to care leavers and estranged students. Eluned previously blogged for HEPI on the experiences of care-leavers and estranged students during the lockdown.

As the lockdown continues, it has become clear that it will be some time before the higher education sector returns to anything like business as usual. The same is evidently true for students, particularly those who are obliged to remain on campus or in their student digs because they do not have a parental home where it is possible to ‘work from home’.

At the beginning of the lockdown, the Unite Foundation joined forces with Stand Alone, Become, the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL) and Spectra to ask care-experienced and estranged students what their biggest concerns are and see how we, as a sector, can respond to their needs.

The survey findings make stark reading. Even in the first week of the lockdown, 62 per cent of those surveyed stated that they were worried about finding the money for everyday essentials such as food, rent and utilities if they could not earn money to support themselves.

Since then, we have seen a catastrophic collapse of the student economy; the part-time and temporary work in bars, restaurants, shops and cafes that many students rely on to top up their maintenance loans and grants have completely disappeared. There is no work now, nor any prospect of it returning any time soon. Even when the lockdown begins to lift, the hospitality and retail sectors will take time to recover, particularly if social distancing measures continue for the foreseeable future. Without the bank of mum and dad, or somewhere to live rent-free over the summer, many lone students face real hardship.

We would like to think that in a civilised modern society, none of our young people would ever go hungry. Sadly, that is exactly the situation we now find ourselves in. Our student finance system assumes that parents will top-up maintenance loans and grants or, if all else fails, that students will be able to work to support themselves. Care-experienced and estranged students find themselves without either source of money. The vast majority of students cannot apply for benefits even if they normally work, so are faced with an impossible choice to carry on with their studies without the money to feed and house themselves, or to drop out of education and claim benefits to meet their immediate needs.

There are few other realistic options. Many lone students have already applied for hardship funds from their universities but, while these are a lifeline, they simply cannot supply the hundreds of pounds that students have lost in income and will need to survive over the summer months. Hardship funds were never designed to respond to this level of need. A number of universities have mobilised additional emergency grants, loans and bursaries to vulnerable students in an impressively short time, but this is by no means universal and we have to recognise that the higher education sector itself faces significant financial challenges over the next year. This is a national crisis and it requires a national response.

As a group, the Unite Foundation, Stand Alone, Become, NNECL and Spectra are calling on policymakers in Westminster, Wales and Northern Ireland to learn from Scotland by putting in place an emergency grant for care-experienced and estranged students, to make sure that they are not forced to drop out of their studies in order to support themselves.

We recognise that the higher education sector faces huge challenges in responding to the Coronavirus crisis, and we do not want to place additional pressure on universities at this difficult time. Nevertheless, it is essential that students who are struggling during this difficult time can continue to access wellbeing and welfare support. Our survey reports that 55 per cent of respondents were also worried about maintaining their mental health and wellbeing during the lockdown and this can only have been exacerbated by seeing friends and colleagues pack up and leave them behind. It is a reminder of just how alone they are.

Stand Alone and NNECL have surveyed some of their university partners to look at examples of best practice from the sector. Many have proactively phoned care-experienced and estranged students to signpost them to extra support. Some have established virtual coffee shops and online social events to help those left on campus to feel less isolated, and many are delivering a full wellbeing service online and by phone as well. The impact of these interventions will only be known with hindsight, but the risk I see with moving exclusively online is that we might lose the humanity from our outreach work. When we are under pressure, it may be easier and quicker to triage students using online forms and signpost students to self-help tools, but this is no replacement for a real human voice to someone who feels isolated and alone.

As we look towards what a ‘new normal’ might look like in the months to come, it is important that we look at our student body in a different way. The student experience has never been a homogenous one and we need to make sure that we keep that complexity of experience in mind when we start planning for the future. A great strength of the university experience is that it brings people from different worlds together. The Coronavirus crisis has reminded us how different our students’ life experiences are. The challenge is to make sure that it does not lead to similarly different life opportunities.

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