The government should introduce a £60 million national hardship fund for all students who are currently in further and higher education, the National Union of Students has said.
The fund would act as an economic package for those who complete their qualifications during the current pandemic, providing access to a grant which can be used for training, reskilling or development, says NUS. The Scottish government has already pledged £5 million in support for university and college students.
They are also calling for students to be able to redo the current academic year at no further cost and with full maintenance support, as well as urging for college and tuition fees to be reimbursed for students who have paid upfront. Debts for one year should be written off for those who paid through loans, the NUS says.
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Zamzam Ibrahim, NUS' national president, said that a financial safety net for all students in the UK was urgently needed.
“The current crisis has shown that students occupy the worst of all possible worlds – with the majority paying extortionate fees for their education and treated as consumers but left out in the cold when the product cannot be delivered as described. On top of this, thousands of trainee 'key workers', such as healthcare students, are currently racking up debt while having their education disrupted or volunteering to fight coronavirus on the frontline.
“Student maintenance support is inadequate, and the government has failed to address the various cost-of-living crises for students in everything from housing to transport to course costs."
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The NUS' Coronavirus and Students Survey this month revealed that up to 85 per cent of working students may need additional financial support as incomes drop, and that 81 per cent expressed concern about their job prospects.
The survey – which involved nearly 10,000 students – also showed that 33 per cent were at critical risk of being unable to access their education, and 74 per cent were worried about the risk to their final qualifications.
Ms Ibrahim added: “Face-to-face teaching and assessments have had to be hurriedly moved online, and placement and other practical activity has had to be cancelled. Students have lacked access to key resources, such as libraries and spaces, disabled students have been left unsupported, and students and staff have been struggling with other demands on their finances, welfare and wider lives as lockdown restrictions are enforced.
“The impact of this disruption will not be felt equally, with those on placements and disabled students feeling the impact particularly severely.
“Students are being forgotten during the Covid-19 pandemic. We are the future workforce that will have to help to rebuild our economy over the coming years.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We understand that this is a difficult time for students and we are working tirelessly with the sector to ensure students are supported and able to complete their studies.
“Students will continue to receive payments of maintenance loans for the remainder of the current academic year and where students are experiencing particular hardship, many universities will already have hardship funds to support students most in need. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme may also be available for those with a part-time employment contract.”