Universities in England are to be given an additional £50m by the government to support students who are struggling financially as a result of the pandemic, in an attempt to stem growing anger and frustration within the student body.
The new funding has been made available after a wave of rent strikes and protests by furious students, many of whom paid for accommodation they could not use after being told to study online from home during lockdown.
It follows a £20m government funding package in December and is aimed at students who are most in need, particularly those who are struggling to meet additional costs for alternative accommodation and access to remote teaching during the pandemic.
The new funding was welcomed by the sector, but vice-chancellors, university staff and students said it did not go far enough, and calls grew for tuition fee refunds and frustration at the limitations of the online university experience.
Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students, said: “Many students are currently under extreme financial pressure as a result of the pandemic: they are falling behind on their rent and bills, and needing to access food banks. This will not be enough to tackle the scale of the issue.”
Dr Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, added: “Small-scale funding packages like this are simply a sticking plaster and not the answer to the widespread problems facing the sector.”
A number of universities and accommodation providers have already said they will not charge rent to students who cannot use their university halls. Universities UK, the representative organisation for the UK’s universities, said the additional £50m was a positive step, but called for additional funding for mental health support and catch-up programmes for students.
Seven vice-chancellors, meanwhile, have sent an open letter asking the government to grant students a 15-month interest waiver on their tuition fee repayments. The letter also recommends that the government make skills funding available to provide short-term qualifications that will improve unemployed graduates’ job prospects.
The leaders of the universities of East Anglia, Essex, Goldsmiths, Kent, Reading, Royal Holloway and Sussex stated: “The pandemic has placed unprecedented pressures on our students. In some of our universities, demands for hardship funds have increased by over 100%. As a result of the pandemic, students also face extraordinary mental health challenges and 18% of students lack access to a computer, laptop or tablet. Additional government support is an urgent priority.”
The universities minister, Michelle Donelan, said: “The additional £50m that we are announcing today will mean we have distributed £70m for hardship in this financial year alone – on top of the £256m of government-funded student premium which universities can use for student support this academic year.”