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How students spend emergency hardship funding

  • 20 November 2023
  • By Peter Gray
  • This blog was written by Peter Gray, Chief Executive and Chair of JS Group, which works with more than 30 universities and more than 250,000 students annually. Find them on LinkedIn.

Universities across the UK offer an impressive scope and scale of interventions to support students in financial need but despite the scope and scale available, as HEPI report – How to beat a cost-of-learning crisis: Universities’ support for students – pointed out, students in many universities are unable to receive emergency funds quickly enough.

HEPI’s recommendation was that institutions develop a ‘flexible and rapid process’ to address this crisis. I couldn’t agree more and am proud that that’s exactly what JS Group has been doing with our partner universities.

We work with institutions to efficiently manage the distribution of bursaries, scholarships, hardship funds and other financial support so that it almost instantly reaches the students who have been allocated it, freeing up resources – and admin time – for the institutions to focus on student experience and participation rates.

Last year, we partnered with Payit, NatWest’s Open Banking service to develop our technology platform, Aspire Cash, and this is transforming the speed at which students receive their funds – it’s now minutes rather than days.

The speed at which students receive this cash is a critical factor when it comes to their ability to enjoy a fulfilling university experience.

As HEPI’s report stated, there is “very little data on the effectiveness and interventions” of bursary, scholarship, hardship funds and other such specialist financial investments. That’s why we recently undertook the first ever analysis of what students receiving these funds spend their money on in our Shining the light on student financial support report.

We looked at the spending patterns of more than 53,000 UK students across a wide range of institutions who received more than £19m over the 2022-2023 academic year.

Our analysis, published in October, revealed that students are choosing to budget carefully so that their bursary, scholarship and hardship funds last throughout the year. Aspire Cash allocates funds to a student, as opposed to a direct bank transfer, enabling the student to draw the funds into their account when they need it and not when the university thinks they need it.

We found that on average, each student who receives additional funding is awarded £360 per year, but 9% of funds aren’t drawn down by the end of the year. Some students, of course, drop out and their allocation is frozen and can be reallocated to continuing students.

Students select the intended use of funds from a menu each time they draw cash. Unsurprisingly, the majority of students spend the funds on ‘cost of living needs’. Some 63% of the funds – about £11m of the total of £19.1m – cover these expenses. For example, household bills take up 25% – or £4m – of the total, while food and other groceries cover 22% – or £3.7m. Rent takes up 16% or £2.8m.

Students are also using the funds to cover learning or course-related resources. Some 11% of the funds – or £1.9m – are for course materials, while 9% – £1.5m – go on transport to and from university. A further 5% – £951,000 – go on personal wellbeing or health support.

Sizeable amounts of cash – about 4.5% or £788,000 – are used on course placements, such as nursing students attending hospitals and about 2.5%, or £475,000, are spent on childcare costs.

As the number of universities we partner with grows, we will be able to offer deeper insights into the needs of students who receive financial support of any kind.

HEPI is absolutely right: universities need to better target those students who most need financial support and these students must be able to immediately access funds at the point of need.

Fortunately, solutions to both these challenges are now here and a growing number of universities are making use of them. Our hope is that in future years we will provide the sector with even deeper insights into which students need the funds, how often they access them and what they spend the cash on.

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