The government must provide a student support package for all students in further and higher education to help them survive – and provide them with "direct payments", the National Union of Students (NUS) has said.
The call for support comes as the NUS publishes research showing that one in three students has cut back on food due to lack of money, one in 10 has turned to food banks, and only 15 per cent say they have been able to access hardship funding.
The NUS said the UK government needed to urgently unlock funding to help students make ends meet.
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Need to know: Colleges predict £2m overspend on student support
NUS’ president, Larissa Kennedy, said the scale of the problem was incredibly alarming and clearly showed how the measly amounts of hardship funding offered to students in England had not made a dent.
College students in need of financial support
“Just to match what the governments in Wales and Northern Ireland have offered to students, this figure should be upwards of £700 million," she said. "Hundreds of thousands of students have been forced to pay for accommodation they were then told not to live in for much of this year. Many are struggling to make ends meet and now getting into debt just trying to access education – the injustice is astounding. The government must step in with direct payments to students to avoid an entire cohort of students getting into financial ruin.”
Around half of the students surveyed said the income of someone who supports them financially has also been impacted by Covid-19 and one in 10 have taken out bank loans to stay afloat.
The research also reveals that those most likely to report the greatest suffering are already marginalised groups such as disabled students, students of colour, international students and those with caring responsibilities.
FE bursary funding: £2m overspend
In August last year, Tes revealed that the Department for Education awarded less than half of the extra hardship money requested by colleges trying to help learners through lockdown.
And an exclusive investigation by Tes in November revealed that, at that time, colleges in England were estimating a £2 million overspend on 16-19 bursary funding. The analysis found that 36 per cent of the total 16-19 bursary funding pot had been spent or allocated by 20 October 2020.
And of the 80 colleges across the country that responded to Tes’ freedom of information request, almost 30 per cent predicted an overspend of the funds. Around 10 per cent were unsure whether their budget would last or not, and 59 per cent said that there would be no overspend.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said NUS' research was "deeply worrying".
"The economic downturn is having a devastating impact on younger students in colleges not able to find part-time work," he said. "These jobs are normally crucial in enabling students to support themselves through their studies, but with the labour market a tough place to be for young people, hardship funds are a vital lifeline for many.
"As the government sets the agenda for rebuilding, it must consider how tight finances will be for thousands of people looking for education and training opportunities in the coming months. Opportunities like the Lifetime Skills Guarantee will only work if people can afford to live whilst studying, through a mixture of loans, grants and welfare support. Without this, many simply won’t be able to afford it.”
The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.