Save the student!

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Increase students’ funding as our next generation reaches breaking point

As the country’s third lockdown was announced, the Prime Minister’s latest address again failed to deliver any promises for further and higher education. A raft of contradictory and confusing regulations has negatively impacted the wellbeing of the nation’s student population, worsened by three separate lockdowns. A scale back of face-to-face tuition for all but ‘essential’ courses has led to many using online teaching. In a recent survey conducted by the Office of National Statistics, 63% of students questioned reported a decline in their mental health and wellbeing since the start of the 2020 academic year.

As a current PHD student, one interviewee stressed the psychological impact of working from home:

“The lack of social interaction is really difficult. The practical elements of my research were limited by the laboratory being closed, and I lost out on valuable research time. To adjust my work schedule was really challenging, and I have found the entire process stressful.”

Whilst undergraduate tuition fees are usually covered by a student loan, many students are hamstrung by accommodation contracts, with student halls not being required during the lockdown study period. For example, University College London (UCL) has advised its students to stay away until at least 22nd February, a month longer than official Department of Education advice. Popular website Save the Student recently calculated the average cost of student living to total almost £800 a month, on top of the yearly fees of up to £9250.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Students (APPG) has recently conducted an inquiry into university tuition and accommodation costs in the light of the pandemic. Chaired by Sheffield Labour MP Paul Blomfield, the group aims to draw attention to teaching standards, in addition to securing vital financial support for the worst-affected students.

One student believes the inquiry is a small step in the right direction for students across the country:

“The inquiry will draw much-needed attention to the current situation. It may be hard to implement a refund plan successfully as a lot of accommodation is owned by private companies and individual landlords, but the university-owned accommodation should be offering at least a partial refund.”

The basis of the APPG inquiry has been challenged by the Russell Group – which represents universities of the top tier in academic research. The group does not believe that teaching quality has suffered throughout the pandemic, highlighting a number of measures universities have put in place to ensure a continuing high standard of teaching quality and welfare support:

These are

(a) Tailored support for students who are in self-isolation.

(b) Delivering mental health and wellbeing provision online and through telephone counselling, as well as bolstering face-to-face support and peer-to-peer programmes

(c) Investing in high-quality online learning and offering additional academic support by investing in new staff and academic programmes

(d) Increasing bursary provision and hardship funding.

However, the experience of some students conflicts with the Russell Group’s assessment. One provided a vivid description of their university’s limited support:

“Other than one email saying we could apply for a financial bursary, and a brief sign-post to welfare support, there has been nothing else offered.”

“As a medical student, I have been working throughout the pandemic and I am really struggling, both physically and mentally. On a daily basis, I come face to face with the virus and its awful consequences, and the response from the government has been a few weeks of clapping and a Christmas thank you”.

Whilst the Russell Group maintains teaching quality has remained high across its institutions, it does acknowledge a serious shortfall in government provision for student financial support.

An increase in the student hardship fund by only £4 million is insufficient to address the costs of increased mental health support, online teaching delivery and additional bursary funds.  

Whilst improved state funding would enable universities to extend their welfare services, one student believes institutions should isolate the root causes of such issues:

“Whilst the university can direct people to mental health services, often the people in most need do not feel confident in asking for help. More focus needs to be on wellbeing and mindfulness techniques, which would go some way to enable people to seek support”.

There can be no doubt of the strain the pandemic has placed on higher education. Institutions should focus on securing governmental funding, to ensure the delivery of support to those who require it.

In a time where mental health and wellbeing could not be more important, our government must urgently assist our country’s student population.

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