Support students through cost-of-living crisis, says ombudsman

OIA says universities should apply regulations ‘with some flexibility’ as more learners forced to take on work or struggle to make ends meet

September 27, 2022
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Universities in England and Wales must be mindful of the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on students, according to the sectors’ complaints ombudsman.

In new guidance for institutions, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) says it is “important not to underestimate the impact that financial hardship can have, especially on those who are already disadvantaged or vulnerable” and that, in some cases, “students’ well-being and mental health may be significantly affected”.

Universities must respond to this, says the OIA, which notes that “more students than ever are likely to have to work part-time to help fund their studies”.

“Providers need to be clear what they mean by ‘full-time’ or ‘part-time’ study. It’s important to be clear about the teaching and learning opportunities that are delivered in person at specified times, and how much students can engage with more flexibly. This enables students to make an informed decision about their availability for work,” the guidance says.

The OIA adds that students on courses with a lot of contact hours, or with caring responsibilities or disabilities, may be less likely to be able to work, and financial pressures “are likely to have even more of an impact on them”.

The OIA also notes that this year “there is more pressure than usual on the availability of student accommodation and some providers are having to offer new students different arrangements to what they might have expected”.

“Students who live a long way from their study base or placement setting may struggle to meet travel costs,” it adds. “It is also important for providers to continue to develop ways to support a sense of belonging for students who live further away.”

Where providers need to make changes to a course because they themselves are affected by financial pressures or “capacity issues”, they “will need to consider the effects the proposed changes are likely to have on their students”, the guidance says.

“Providers should discuss with students any concerns they have about the changes and agree arrangements to address those concerns. It may be appropriate to consider bursaries to meet extra travel expenses or rental costs, or other practical or financial remedies,” the guidance says.

The guidance goes on to say that it is “important to make sure that students have clear and accessible information about their tuition fee obligations including any late payment penalties that might apply, and the deadline for withdrawal without incurring fee liability”.

“It can come as a shock to students who decide to leave their studies that they may still have to pay a proportion of their tuition fees. Information about relevant cut-off dates is generally set out in the provider’s policies but needs to be drawn to the attention of students at key points throughout their studies,” the OIA says.

And the OIA also says that students “need information about what process to follow if they believe that their financial situation has had an impact on their academic performance, for example the process for seeking extensions to deadlines, for making requests for additional consideration (claims for mitigation or extenuation), or for making an academic appeal”.

“Problems such as financial hardship that existed before the student started their studies may not generally be acceptable reasons for giving a student additional consideration. Some providers specifically exclude difficulties caused by part-time work as an acceptable reason. These policies should always be applied with some flexibility,” the guidance says.

“For some students, in some circumstances, it may be fair to take those difficulties into account when looking at the student’s performance, non-attendance or late submission.”

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