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Maintaining quality through the cost-of-living crisis

  • 13 May 2024
  • By Susi Peacock
  • This blog was kindly authored by Susi Peacock, Quality Enhancement Specialist at QAA Scotland. QAA Scotland has been hosting a series of events focused on ‘Supporting our learners to thrive’ through the cost-of-living crisis.

Published last week, HEPI’s report A Minimum Income Standard for Students highlighted the ‘bleak picture’ painted by the latest research on the impacts of the cost-of-living crisis, with more than a quarter of universities now hosting food banks, seven in ten students having considered giving up their studies in the face of escalating living costs, and the maximum maintenance support generally covering less than two-thirds of those costs – leading the report’s authors to call for solutions whereby ‘all students should be able to reach a minimum acceptable standard of living’.

The cost-of-living crisis has of course impacted on so many families and individuals, not least those struggling to balance their studies with other obligations and pressures that might often threaten to overwhelm them.

In years gone by, students were generally expected to be able to prioritize their studies over part-time jobs. Such paid work might bring in cash that would help pay their rent – and even afford them the odd night out – but it was rarely considered essential to keeping them alive.

Today, that traditional work/study dynamic has flipped. Many students’ studies now have to be fitted around their commitments to work. We can no longer approach learning and teaching on the basis that students can or should be expected to put their studies first.

Students have to pay for food, heating and accommodation. They have to pay for their travel to their campuses and to their places of work. And many also have to pay for childcare or for the care of elderly parents, or both.

It’s difficult to learn when you’re hungry or cold, and when you can’t afford the bus fare to college or university. And, while students might once have had the time to take part in all those important social elements of learning, those activities will often simply have to fall by the wayside – along with those hours of reading in libraries and using laboratory and studio facilities for independent study, and time spent with peers on valuable group learning and collaborative projects and other areas of teamwork.

These students are often no longer able to benefit from the full and rich range of formal and informal learning opportunities once offered by the traditional on-campus experience, or thereby to develop the sense of belonging to their learning communities that can prove so valuable to their professional, personal and academic development.

This failure to connect with those communities in turn increases the strains upon their own mental health and upon institutions’ welfare support systems.

Wonkhe’s Sunday Blake and Pearson’s Gail Capper have recently completed some important work on how the cost-of-living crisis has impacted on students’ experiences of belonging. In insightful engagements, they asked students experiencing a range of challenges exacerbated by this economic crisis why they had chosen to stick with their studies. The answer often came back – especially from first-generation students – that they had no other options if they were to one day have a chance of improving their prospects of decent lives for themselves and for their families.

These issues are particularly compounded for specific groups, such as those who lack the practical, material and emotional support of families (including, as the Unite Foundation’s Fiona Ellison has observed, care-experienced and estranged students) and students who are parents or carers.

The difficulties experienced by this latter group have been the subject of recent research by Andrea Todd, the University of Chester’s Director of Pro Bono and Community Engagement. Her vital work has identified the pressures of cost, time and guilt that weigh heavily upon these students. The Office for Students has also identified this group of students as being especially at risk.

So, what can providers do to maintain and enhance the quality of the learning experience for those students whose studies and lives are worst impacted by this crisis? There are a range of useful and practical approaches which, when developed and implemented collaboratively and strategically, have been able to make real differences to students’ learning experiences.

Michelle Morgan from the University of East London has, for example, led the development of pre-arrival questionnaires for new students. This initiative allows educators and planners to find out about their learners’ key needs in advance, giving institutions the time to organise and structure the delivery of programmes in ways that best meet those needs.

Meanwhile, at the University of the West of Scotland, Emily McIntosh has introduced ‘Talk Your Timetable’ – a mechanism whereby timetabling teams work closely with teaching staff to discuss ways to accommodate the specific needs of their learners. Such an approach can of course be usefully enhanced, informed and supported by initiatives like Michelle Morgan’s questionnaires.

By gathering such information about students – by seeing them as individuals who have to balance complex sets of priorities in their lives – providers can structure teaching timetables to minimize student commutes by focusing in-person activities onto particular days of the week, while at the same time taking care to afford students sufficient opportunities during those study days for group work, social learning and the use of libraries and other on-campus facilities to foster that all-important sense of belonging.

Some universities are even offering free breakfasts or early evening drop-ins where students can enjoy heavily subsidized meals (or even learn how to cook), in order to promote engagement in social learning. Others are working with public transport companies to reduce the costs of travel to campus.

Of course, as Debbie McVitty has observed, providers can do a lot to support the independent and off-campus learning of students who are no longer able to be on-site five days a week. Educators have been able to continue and upgrade the use of mechanisms for both synchronous and asynchronous blended learning opportunities – developed with some urgency during the height of the Covid-19 emergency and, with the benefit of expertise then gained at pace, now carefully crafted to foster online environments that can effectively support and promote proactive, interactive and active blended learning – from classroom participation to online social learning spaces.

As detailed in a recent report for the Scottish Funding Council on ‘Delivering an effective and inclusive digital/blended offering’, such online activities must be properly planned, resourced, and centred on learners. They must demonstrate authentic value. Time-pressed students aren’t going to engage in such activities if they can’t clearly see their benefits.

It is also clearly essential that, where necessary, providers support students with access to the hardware, software, connectivity and training required to join these channels, so as to avoid deepening the inequities of digital divides.

But, while there are of course ongoing expectations for students on professional and practice-based courses to maintain relatively high commitments to on-campus attendance, there are increasingly imaginative ways to ensure engagement without the levels of physical presence once considered de rigueur.

Indeed, those voices that now suggest that the ethical and commercial imperatives upon providers to ensure appropriate flexibility and optionality in their modes of delivery are growing in both volume and influence.

From the complexities of timetabling and student support to virtual learning and personalized delivery, there are ways in which evolving technologies – including generative artificial intelligence – will be able in the near future to help resource-stretched providers support their students through such periods of extraordinary pressure as they seek, as ever, to ensure that the quality of the learning experience is maintained and enhanced.

For the moment though, we can take some heart in seeing the sector simply doing what it does best: coming together to develop and share innovative and practical solutions to cases of the most immediate and urgent need.

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