University students struggling to make ends meet amid pandemic, says NUS

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0:01am, Tue 08 Sep 2020
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Students are “close to the brink” financially due to the Covid-19 pandemic – with about a fifth struggling to pay their rent and bills, a survey suggests.

Nearly three in four (73%) students are concerned about being able to manage financially and now half plan to have a full or part-time job alongside their studies, according to the National Union of Students (NUS).

Its survey of more than 4,100 students in July found 21% were unable to pay bills in full over the past four months, while 19% were unable to pay their rent in full during the same period.

The union is calling on the Government to provide more hardship funding to universities to help support students who find themselves in financial difficulty as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

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It comes as students across the country prepare to return to university campuses for the autumn term.

The majority are concerned about the risk of contracting coronavirus when they return to campus – and more than three in five (62%) do not trust the UK Government to do the right thing for students in the event of a second wave of Covid-19, the survey suggests.

Many universities are planning to use a blended learning approach, with a mix of online and face-to-face classes when campuses reopen and institutions are looking to hold virtual freshers’ events.

Of the students who experienced remote learning last term, nearly a fifth (19%) said the provision was not of a good standard and 15% said they were not able to access the provision sufficiently to complete their studies.

Students should be given the option to redo the term or have their fees written off or reimbursed if they were unable to access their online learning in the summer term, the union says.

Larissa Kennedy, NUS president, said “Students are close to the brink financially with little room for manoeuvre or options to help themselves.

“Many have lost jobs during the lockdown, not been able to find employment over the summer and/or seen the incomes of those they rely on financially seriously affected by coronavirus.”

Students who have not been able to receive the teaching that they were entitled to last term must be given the option to redo the term or have their fees written off or reimbursed

She added: “Governments across the UK need to act urgently to ensure that students do not go hungry or end up in rent arrears next term.

“They must work with universities and colleges to ensure that hardship funds are sufficiently resourced and available for all students who need them.”

On findings about online learning, Ms Kennedy added: “It is unacceptable that these numbers of students have been unable to engage with their learning during this pandemic.

“Students who have not been able to receive the teaching that they were entitled to last term must be given the option to redo the term or have their fees written off or reimbursed.”

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “The Government has to listen to calls to properly fund the sector so we can invest in digital infrastructure and universities can ensure that no student misses out whilst studying.”

A Universities UK (UUK) spokesman said: “Understandably, students will have questions about the start of the new term and university teams are communicating regularly with students and offering targeted support on issues including wellbeing, financial aid as well as the use of hardship funds and assistance for those facing digital poverty.

“Equal opportunity for all – including providing the necessary equipment and resources for those who need additional support at home – is a priority for universities and institutions will do all they can to ensure their plans are visible and well understood.”

He added: “In challenging times, students have shown themselves to be resilient, dedicated and adaptable.

“Those starting at or returning to university this autumn can be confident that UK universities will be delivering high-quality and rewarding courses to help students fulfil their potential.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We understand this is an extremely difficult time for students, which is why from the very start of this pandemic the universities minister’s top priority has been to keep students safe and supported.

“The Government is working closely with the sector through the Government task force to provide support for disadvantaged students including helping providers draw upon existing funds worth £256 million for the 2020-21 academic year to go towards hardship support.

“Universities are autonomous and we expect them to continue to deliver a high-quality academic experience whilst using the latest public health advice to keep their students and staff safe during this pandemic.”

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