Student Safety Net Report

Report Contents

Executive Summary
Student Safety Net: A nationwide hardship fund
Student Safety Net: Education Leavers financial support
Re-do, reimburse, write off: Retake the year
Re-do, reimburse, write off: Debt reimbursed or fees written off
Next steps / Contact us
Using the data in your SU


The Student Safety Net Campaign

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about an economic crash. Students are now in a financial storm, their living situations and education severely disrupted, and are deeply concerned for their family members. We believe that every student, at all levels of education, should have access to a national hardship funding and every education leaver should have access to an additional grant if they are unemployed, which can be used for training and developing their skills. This is the student safety net we need. 


Similarly, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our education. Students’ placements have been paused, lessons moved online and colleges shut. We need the chance to redo, reimburse or write-off.  


Anyone who wants to should be able to repeat this year of studies, at no additional cost. Anyone who has paid fees through the student loan system should have their debt for this year written off – and if you’ve paid upfront, you should get that reimbursed. 


This report 

This report has been compiled from our student survey on the impacts of Coronavirus, which received 9872 responses. The survey data showed the clear need for campaigning action on students’ immediate concerns, and for some proactive work to curb students’ huge concerns about the future. We have organised it so that you can see exactly what we’re campaigning for, why we’re making these asks and how to use the data to win the arguments for them.  


Student Safety Net

We need a student safety net.

We all need access to a nationwide hardship fund.


What is the problem? 

There is a financial crisis for students. 


The pandemic has brought an immediate financial crisis for students. 


We know that in higher education, maintenance support is often not enough to cover all costs, and in further education, support is more limited still. While most universities and colleges will have discretionary hardship funds, these are often inadequate. 


Students’ opportunities to earn are drying up 

Many students supplement their income through paid work. In our survey, 62% of HE students and 58% of FE students reported having a job alongside study (full-time, part-time, zero-hours, casual, or other).  


However, the lockdown has hit student workers hard: of those working, 85% of FE and 87% of HE students said that their work has been affected by Coronavirus. A clear majority of students have seen action which will have reduced their income:: being placed on furlough, taking unpaid leave, reduced hours, time off due to being ill with the virus, or being made redundant. 


Students aren’t able to get support from other sources 

Students cannot rely necessarily on parents, guardians or partners. Almost two-thirds of students said there had been at least some impact on the finances of someone who supports them, with around 1 in 5 saying the impact was major. 


Most other safety nets in society fail to catch students: most full-time students are prevented from claiming Universal Credit; many do not earn enough to qualify for statutory sick pay; while those in self-employment or the gig economy may not have paid through self-assessment long enough to qualify for support from the relevant Government support scheme.  The additional £500m in community hardship funds provided in England is expected to be spent largely on council tax reductions which cannot support students. 


“I am a mature student, full time study, single parent, look after a 13 year old child, and commute to University.  I am struggling to pay my rent, schools are closed and am home looking after my child and home schooling her, if I decide to go to work there is no one who will look after her at home.  I once applied for housing benefit they told me I do not qualify as I receive maintenance loan.  Currently I am using my credit card to pay for rent and food waiting for my next student loan to be paid in.  I do not know how the future holds but I am so scared.” – Survey respondent.


What do students need? 

A flexible solution 

Students need a solution which can be flexible enough to adjust to their personal circumstances with as little bureaucracy as possible. This can only mean university and college hardship funding, which is designed to be as open and fair as possible regarding eligibility. 


Apprentices who are on the apprentice minimum wage should, if furloughed, receive 100% of their wages. 


Winning the arguments 

This is already happening elsewhere 

Welcome action has been taken in some parts of the UK: in Scotland, an extra £5m has been put into university and college hardship funds for home students in FE and HE, while in Northern Ireland the intention is to double the HE hardship fund budget. We need governments in England and Wales to respond in kind, and provide emergency funds to universities and colleges to supplement their hardship funds. Options include: 


  • funding that is at least equal to the funding in Scotland, adjusted for population, or  

  • a fund of £60m, as this figure represents 10% of the funding made available in community hardship funds and students make up around 10% of the population, plus additional funding which should be delivered through the Barnet consequentials to bolster hardship support across the UK. 


To be clear, we must ensure that international students (including those in Scotland) and further education students and apprentices (including those in Northern Ireland) have access to adequate hardship funding as part of this package of support.  


We need financial support if we’re leaving education.

Unemployment, low earnings and the economy 

The state of the job market 

Everyone leaving education this summer, whether on completion of university study, A-Levels or a vocational course, faces a constricted job market and reduced opportunities for employment.  


While the headline unemployment rate for the UK is 3.8%, the equivalent unemployment rate for the 18-24 age group is already more than 2.5 times as large at 10% and can be expected to grow as the effects of the current crisis filter through.   


What impact does a recession have? 

We know from research into previous recessions the effect that this can have on the earnings and employment of education leavers. By studying college graduates during the 1980s severe recession, Professor Lisa Kahn found that graduates earned roughly 17.5 percent less per year than if had they graduated during normal market conditions. The effects of this are long lasting: the persistently low wage effect only wears off after two decades. 


It is impossible to know exactly what effect COVID-19 will have on the wider economy and the job market but this is of significant concern to students. 95% were concerned of the impact on the wider economy. Similarly, 81% of students are concerned of the effect that the Coronavirus crisis will have on their own job prospects and 71% are concerned of the impact it will have on their employability. They must be given reassurances at this troubling time and government must act to support these students, who set to lose out massively.  


We are already hearing of stories from students who have had offers for their dream jobs withdrawn as a result of COVID-19. More than a quarter of businesses are reducing the number of graduates they recruit this year, according to a recent survey by the Institute of Student Employers (ISE). It is likely that, as following the financial crisis of 2008, more education leavers will experience ‘occupational scarring’ as time spent in low-paying occupations reduces future earnings prospects, both due to pay progression being weaker in these occupations and because moving to higher-paying occupations is relatively rare and pay effects do not immediately cease.  


What do students want?  

The unemployment rate in the UK could reach 21%, which would cause a recession likely to eclipse any experienced for the past 80 years. Education leavers, along with all those in vulnerable and precarious situations in the job market, must be protected in this scenario. We would like to see the UK government introduce a grant equivalent to one year’s training for education leavers that can be used for further training and education, retraining and other activity that will improve their job prospects.   


Winning the arguments  

This is good news for the economy 

This would have wider economic benefits by stimulating increased spending amongst this group and directing funding towards education providers.  


It could also help to resolve a situation in which a whole cohort of education leavers enter the job market at a time when unemployment is particularly high, increasing the over-supply of those seeking employment, by encouraging education leavers into further study.  


This puts money back into education 

We know that the financial sustainability of the education sector will be put at risk as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic and this would provide a mechanism for increasing government funding to help secure the long-term future of these institutions.  


A grant to support education leavers into further education, training or skills development would have wider economic benefits that would go some way towards tackling unemployment, developing the UK’s skills base and stopping this generation of education leavers slipping through the cracks. 


Re-do, reimburse, write off

We need to be able to redo this year


What’s the situation?  

In many cases, education institutions have moved quickly to adapt to COVID-19, with over three-quarters of students acknowledging that their institution has provided online learning as required. 


20% of students reported that they were unable to access their education online and 33% of students did not agree that the education they were receiving was of adequate quality. This means they are at a critical risk of losing out on this year of education.  


While it is clear that effort is being made to put provision online, it is not adequate that students are dissatisfied with their learning experience. This is a problem for disabled students, those from disadvantaged backgrounds who do not have easy access to online resources and international students who may be unable to access course materials in their home countries.  


The unique difficulties that disabled students face have not always been addressed, with 21% of those who receive learning support saying they have not received adequate support to enable them to continue their work to the best of their ability throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a matter of fairness that these students be able to complete their studies and receive the teaching that they are entitled to.   


What do students want?  

The fairest option for all students is to give everyone the ability to retake the entire year of their education at no additional cost, in recognition of the disruption caused.  


Most institutions are already projecting significantly reduced intakes of students for the next academic year, especially for international students, and so we are confident that the sector has the capacity to accommodate students who do choose to retake the year, without this negatively impacting on the education of others.  


Access to redo the year must be combined with extended eligibility for maintenance support, to ensure that it is an affordable option for all who choose to do so.  


Winning the arguments  

It will be good for their reputation 

Prospective international students are highly likely to know someone who is also studying abroad in their chosen destination, and these students can be influential in the decisions prospective students make, be that in regard to institution, course or country of study. With opportunities for international recruitment set to decline it is essential that institutions provide all international students with a positive perception of their experience of the UK’s education system.  


It's high on students’ lists of concerns 

The survey has shown that 81% of students are concerned about the effect that the Coronavirus crisis will have on their own job prospects and 71% are concerned of the impact it will have on their employability. This shows that students are hyper-aware of the effects that this will have on the entire job market and of how the projected increase in unemployment will impact them. Institutions must ensure that students receive the quality of education that they were expecting to prepare them for future employment.   


Students on placement are worst hit 

Our survey found that of those who have a placement as part of their course, over three in four believe the current Covid-19 outbreak will have a negative impact on their ability to complete their placement and similarly for those on vocational courses around four in five believe the Covid-19 outbreak will have a negative impact on the vocational element of their course. This demonstrates the level of disruption caused: placements are an integral part of people’s courses, and they should have the chance to complete them and learn from them fairly. This will also ensure that employers have faith in these students’ qualifications. 


We need our debt written off or fees reimbursed.

What’s the situation? 

Disrupted education 

The disruption to our students’ education has been enormous. Every student on every course in every department in every university and college has been affected. Most universities and colleges have tried to move their courses online – but for all the efforts of academic staff, making such a move so quickly has major drawbacks.  


For those undertaking courses with a significant element of work in laboratories, workshops, clinical settings, overseas placements or field trips, online education cannot replicate what has been lost – three in four students on placement thought that COVID-19 has negatively impacted their ability to complete it. 


Still more students have simply not been able to engage in the online learning provided. This may be because they have caring responsibilities while childcare providers and schools have closed, or they are disabled and do not have access to essential assistance or technology, or they are from a lower-income background and do not have a computer they can use, or they are a rural student without a good enough broadband service. For those in institutions affected by this year’s strike action, still more teaching time has been lost. 


The Westminster government’s position 

The Minister for Universities in the Westminster parliament, Michelle Donelan, has suggested that fee reductions or refunds would not be due to students where ‘adequate online teaching’ has been provided, but that students can complain to their institution and ultimately to the OIA if they are unsatisfied.  Many legal firms are publishing articles about this, suggesting universities are expecting a large amount of complaints. 


What do students want? 

Tuition fee write off or reimbursement 

Over 300,000 people have signed a petition demanding fee refunds, and requests for NUS to campaign for this was a strong theme in the responses to our survey, and is deeply felt. As one mature student respondent said: “get in talks about getting refunded for this term. with striking and this this final year has been an absolute joke.” 


A collective solution  

Placing the responsibility on individual students to make individual complaints in a situation where the disruption caused by Coronavirus has affected every single student is neither equitable nor efficient.  


For this reason, a student safety net must be provided by the Westminster Government, working with the devolved administrations to ensure students across the UK are supported equally. We propose that: 


  • Students at any level in further and higher education must have any fees they have paid in 2019/20 reimbursed or debt written off: 

  • For home and EU students who have paid fees via student loans, by cancelling any related student loan debt and any interest accrued. This includes the amount that a masters student takes out in loans. 

  • For international students and others who have paid upfront, through direct reimbursement, with universities and colleges accessing a central fund to underwrite this cost. 


Allied Healthcare Students 

We recognise there may be specific student groups who need tailored solutions. For example, we are also in discussions with colleagues in trade unions and professional bodies about the specific situation of students on healthcare courses and will develop further proposals in due course. 


Winning the arguments 

What does ‘adequate teaching’ mean? 

Online teaching will not be appropriate for many students, however well delivered. Even if it is perhaps appropriate, how are students meant to judge whether their online teaching is adequate? How would internal processes, the OIA (or its equivalents in Scotland and Northern Ireland) or the courts system cope if hundreds of thousands of students decide to complain? How can universities afford to reimburse so many students if they are found to have a case? By taking this stance, the government is putting undue pressure on institutions, and should instead provide the funding itself. 


Reputational damage 

For international students, who have paid many thousands of pounds, a failure to provide some financial recompense will be seen as enormously unfair, and risk damaging the reputation of UK higher education when it could not be more important to encourage international students to continue to study here. 


Next steps...

The data from the Coronavirus and students research is now available for students’ unions and the public to use. We will be using it to campaign for a student safety net and for the government to allow all students to redo, reimburse or write-off – keep your eyes on NUS’ daily updates on Coronavirus for news of more campaign actions. 

Any questions? 

If you have any questions, please email