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Supporting students in times of hardship

  • 16 February 2021
  • By Professor Amanda Broderick, Dr Diana Beech and Vivienne Stern

This blog has been kindly contributed by Professor Amanda Broderick, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of East London, Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive of London Higher, and Vivienne Stern, Director of Universities UK International.

Every university in the country recognises the duty of care it has to the health and wellbeing of every student. Although the legal parameters are sometimes blurred as to how much institutions should be expected to ‘provide’ for their students, we have seen the caring role of universities develop – none more so than during the current pandemic – to ensure that all students, irrespective of their background or circumstance, get the support they need to continue their studies and survive. This is particularly evident in the universities of Greater London, which support the lion’s share of international students who have found themselves without recourse to public funds throughout the pandemic. 

The demands of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) mean that all international students must have evidence of sufficient funds in their bank accounts before they can secure a visa to study in the UK. This means they must demonstrate they have the full tuition fee plus c.£12,000 (for Greater London universities) and c.£9,200 for other regions. This is to cover all accommodation and subsistence for courses of nine months and over, since international students are only legally able to secure part-time work up to 20 hours per week.

While this prerequisite is necessary for all new entrants, which should mean that most 2020/21 starters should have the necessary means to support themselves for their first year, many international students who are continuing onto other years of study may rely on topping up funds from part-time work (now not available or severely limited through lockdown) or from their family, friends or community sponsors ‘back home’, who may also be financially impacted by the pandemic. 

When circumstances impact on these income streams, international students, like home ones, can struggle to make ends meet. The fact that they are far from home, in a new country, exacerbates an already challenging situation. During this pandemic, we have seen the vulnerable suffer the most and inequalities widen.

While student hardship is evident across all universities, it is particularly concentrated in the more socially inclusive ones, both in London and across the UK. Greater London universities have the added challenge of serving domestic and migrant populations with some of the greatest levels of social exclusion, health inequality and child poverty not only in the UK but of anywhere in Europe. 

But universities are responding, supported in part by the Office for Students’ (OfS) hardship funding. Admittedly, given the diversity of UK higher education, this evolving university support can be inconsistent and institutions may be differentially prepared for it in practice. Yet, it remains a life-changing, if not a life-saving, service all the same, and we should be doing our utmost to ensure, as a sector, we can commit to a minimum offer of care.

Co-ordinating a framework of support

As individuals who want to show the UK welcomes and embraces international students, we are keen to take the best practice of those universities which have already stepped up to the plate, together with listening to students and those closest to the coalface of hardship support, including foodbank volunteers and welfare teams, to propose a framework of support to tackle the greatest areas of need through the period of the pandemic. This includes:

  1. Equal eligibility for home and international students for hardship funds, plus a range of other support including food vouchers, food parcels, emergency accommodation, digital equipment and mental health and well-being interventions.
  2. Emergency support in place daily to ensure no student in hardship goes hungry. For example, the University of East London provides a free hot takeaway meal on campus every day to any student known to be experiencing financial hardship. This provision also provides an opportunity for wraparound care with professional service teams in situ for confidential advice and guidance. 
  3. Provision for twice-weekly, on-campus or local asymptomatic testing for every student who accesses campus. Universities have worked tirelessly to support all students in providing self-isolation support across all accommodation types. If a student in hardship tests positive while living in precarious conditions, the university will make every effort to provide self-isolation accommodation.
  4. Flexible and co-ordinated student fee payment plans. Currently, plans vary considerably across universities and will be influenced by whether a student is academically engaged or not. For those who are academically engaged but in financial distress, exceptional flexibility throughout the academic year should be encouraged. All students should be aware, however, that a university cannot ethically roll cumulative debt through to future years of study.
  5. Proactive engagement with all students to ensure they know what support is available and how to access it. To alleviate undue burden on local authoritiesand foodbanks, universities should reach out to them (the Trussell Trust can provide contact details) and provide staff and volunteers with university contact details and posters to raise visibility and signpost students to campus support. For international students concerned about unduly jeopardising their visa status, these communications should include information about UKCISA’s confidential helpline, +4420 7788 9214, which is open Monday to Friday (except for public holidays), 1.00pm to 4.00pm (UK time), and stress that no information will be passed on to universities.

A (task)force for good

At the end of the day, students – whether domestic or international – have put their trust in us, as universities, to provide for their futures and, while they are with us, we owe it to them to ensure they have the best educational experience possible.

If the UK is to continue being a global higher education destination of choice as we come out of the pandemic, we need to get things right now – to alleviate current student hardship and to focus on rebuilding and regenerating the economy through our high-level skills provision and cutting-edge research and development.

Clearly, although universities and government have both put a huge amount of money into student hardship, there will be limits to what we can do, but making sure we are offering the practical, wraparound support that goes with the financial assistance we are able to provide is what will pick people up and enable us as a community to thrive.

The first meeting of a taskforce, to be chaired jointly by UUKi and London Higher, will take place today to consider best practice for supporting international student hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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