The current cost of living crisis is causing a great deal of anxiety across the country. The impact of rising energy, food and transport costs is having a significant impact on many students. At the same time families that might ordinarily have been willing to provide financial support may be less able to do so.
Providers are themselves facing rising costs whilst having to think through how best to support students with cost of living pressures and how to finance that additional support. It might also mean they have to consider making changes to services, courses or facilities.
All of this will be having an effect on the wellbeing of many students and staff members struggling with personal pressures whilst trying to manage their studies and work.
While the scale of this cost of living crisis is new, some of the challenges it presents, and some of the ways to mitigate the impact, are not. We hope that it’s helpful to students and providers in these difficult times to draw together some relevant learning from complaints.
Level of impact
Some students will be significantly more affected by cost of living and related pressures than others. Those who were just getting by financially before may no longer be able to manage; others may be experiencing financial difficulties for the first time and not be well equipped to cope. Students with experience of the care system, disabled students and those with health conditions, those with caring responsibilities, and international students may face particular challenges. It’s important not to underestimate the impact that financial hardship can have, especially on those who are already disadvantaged or vulnerable. In some cases, students’ wellbeing and mental health may be significantly affected, especially coming on top of the long-term impacts of the pandemic.
Sources of support
It’s important to signpost students to any sources of financial support that might be available for example through existing bursary and scholarship schemes.
Students’ unions or other student representative bodies can be a valuable source of advice for students facing financial hardship. Providers should work with their students’ union or other student representative body to try to identify students and groups of students who are in need of support and find ways to support them. Working together in this way can help to mitigate the potential strain on stretched resources across student welfare and advice services.
It’s particularly important to look out for those students who may not benefit from sources of funding available to most. For example, some mature students and some part-time students might not qualify for a maintenance loan (or any increase in it).
Many providers have hardship funding available and it’s important for this to be well-signposted, with clear information about who can apply, whether there are any specific conditions, and what might be available. Providers should make sure that the criteria for accessing hardship funds are fair and that applications are processed as quickly as possible.
Providers should also make sure information is available about other potential sources of financial support and advice. It’s important to make sure that international students in particular understand any restrictions on applying for additional funding.
Some providers or their student representative bodies may have, or be able to develop, a relationship with community resources, such as foodbanks or community supermarkets, clothing banks, or charities that help people with reducing energy costs.
Many students are likely to need additional welfare and wellbeing support. Many providers will already be looking for ways to offer more support. It may also be helpful to liaise with local services where large numbers of students are affected.
External advice services for students such as UKCISA (for international students), Student Minds (for student mental health support), Blackbullion (help with financial planning for students), and Money Helper (for general financial guidance) can also be valuable.
Officers and staff in student representative bodies, and people in student support roles in providers, are likely to be trying to help a high number of students in difficult and distressing situations and this is likely to put a strain on their own wellbeing. It’s important for providers to be mindful of this and to offer support.
Students and part-time work
More students than ever are likely to have to work part-time to help fund their studies.
Providers need to be clear what they mean by “full-time” or “part-time” study. It’s important to be clear about the teaching and learning opportunities that are delivered in person at specified times, and how much students can engage with more flexibly. This enables students to make an informed decision about their availability for work.
Changes made at short notice, in particular to timetabling, can be stressful and difficult to accommodate for students who need to work. When changes unavoidably have to be made at short notice, it’s important that providers take a flexible approach to reduce the impact on students with work or caring commitments.
Students on courses with high contact hours, and those with caring responsibilities, a disability or health condition, or restrictions on their visas, may be unable to work many – or any - hours whilst studying. Financial pressures are likely to have even more of an impact on them.
Providers can help by making sure that adverts for jobs available in its own services or facilities are easy to find.
Providers sometimes need to make changes to arrangements for students and must always be mindful of their obligations under consumer legislation when considering and implementing changes.
This year there is more pressure than usual on the availability of student accommodation and some providers are having to offer new students different arrangements to what they might have expected. Students who live a long way from their study base or placement setting may struggle to meet travel costs. It is also important for providers to continue to develop ways to support a sense of belonging for students who live further away.
Providers may also find it necessary to make changes to a course or programme or to facilities because of financial pressures or capacity issues. In these cases providers will need to consider the effects the proposed changes are likely to have on their students. Some students will be more seriously affected by significant changes than others, and providers need to consider carefully the different impacts changes may have.
Providers should discuss with students any concerns they have about the changes and agree arrangements to address those concerns. It may be appropriate to consider bursaries to meet extra travel expenses or rental costs, or other practical or financial remedies.
We have previously published guidance on course, campus and provider closure that any providers considering making significant changes may find helpful.
Providers have to give prospective students clear information in advance about likely costs they will incur as part of their studies, such as field trips and specialist equipment or facilities, and this is particularly important when financial pressures are so acute. It’s useful to remind students about these costs at the beginning of each year of study.
Students also need to know about any deadlines that may be important, such as deadlines for selecting alternative modules. They also need to know what the default position will be if they don’t make an active choice by that date.
It’s also important to make sure that students have clear and accessible information about their tuition fee obligations including any late payment penalties that might apply, and the deadline for withdrawal without incurring fee liability. It can come as a shock to students who decide to leave their studies that they may still have to pay a proportion of their tuition fees. Information about relevant cut off dates is generally set out in the provider’s policies but needs to be drawn to the attention of students at key points throughout their studies. Providers’ accommodation agreements should also make it clear what the student’s obligations will be if they leave their accommodation early.
Where studies are impacted
It’s important for providers to make sure that students know what they can do and which process they need to follow if their studies are being affected.
Students need information about what process to follow if they believe that their financial situation has had an impact on their academic performance, for example the process for seeking extensions to deadlines, for making requests for additional consideration (claims for mitigation or extenuation), or for making an academic appeal. Students who try to raise their concerns through the wrong process or department should be signposted to the correct process. It is important that all staff who receive communications from students know where to direct them.
Problems such as financial hardship that existed before the student started their studies may not generally be acceptable reasons for giving a student additional consideration. Some providers specifically exclude difficulties caused by part-time work as an acceptable reason. These policies should always be applied with some flexibility. For some students, in some circumstances, it may be fair to take those difficulties into account when looking at the student’s performance, non-attendance or late submission. For example, it might be fair to take into account a student’s unexpected financial crisis, such as the withdrawal of an expected source of financial support, if the crisis got in the way of their studies.
Some students may need to ask for additional consideration because illness has affected their performance. The cost of obtaining a medical certificate can be a barrier for some students and providers should not generally be requiring this. We have published guidance on this in our Good Practice Framework: Requests for additional consideration.
Taking a break
Some students may feel their circumstances mean they need to pause their studies. Providers should approach those situations sympathetically, working with the student to make sure they know the consequences of stepping off their course, including any deadlines for completion that might apply, potential implications for fees, student finance, or visas, and what would need to happen when they are in a position to re-join it.
We saw in the pandemic that, when students, their representative body and the provider came together to look for solutions, challenges were generally managed more effectively. Working together in this way is just as important now, to try to minimise the impact of acute financial pressures, as we find ourselves in another very challenging period.