Earlier in the summer David Hitchcock circulated an important guide about student poverty, offering advice about the coming socioeconomic crisis and what it means for students. With the possibility that inflation could hit 20% in Britain by January, it’s likely that poverty will become widespread amongst the student population. Not simply in the relative sense of an income 60% below the median household income after housing but in the absolute sense of having to go without two or more essentials (having a home, food, heating, lighting, clothing, shoes and basic toiletries) in the past month because they couldn’t afford them, to use the Joseph Rowntree Foundation definition. NUS research on student poverty in Scotland reported the following disturbing findings earlier this year, while the inflation rate was 5.5%:
- 12% of all students have experienced homelessness since starting their studies, rising to an incidence of one in three amongst estranged and care-experienced students
- A third of students (35%) have considered dropping out of their course due to financial difficulties and a quarter of students (25%) had been unable to pay their rent in full on one or more occasion
- Around two thirds (64%) have experienced mental ill-health as a result of financial pressures and 60% of students worry or stress about their finances “frequently” or “all the time”
- More than half (56%) of respondents said it was hard to cope financially over the summer
- Nearly one in three (31%) students have relied on commercial debt such as credit cards, Klarna or payday loans, with a quarter reliant on bank overdrafts and 8% of respondents depend on foodbanks
- 65% of respondents who applied for discretionary funding either received no support or not enough support
Remember that Scotland has vastly lower student fees than England, with students from Scotland being exempt. These findings reflect the reality of student poverty prior to the onset of double digit inflation, a threshold which can be assumed to have been reached earlier due to the exclusion of housing and the inadequate coverage of rent in the CPI measure. I’m quoting the above findings in order to convey a sense of how bad the situation is likely to get in the coming academic year, with rents growing by 20% in the last year in a city like Manchester. It seems clear that under these conditions there is going to be a vast amount of poverty across the student body, with implications for universities which I’m concerned aren’t adequately being thought through. In an important piece for WonkHE Jim Dickinson considers what this means for online learning:
Meanwhile if we return to the UEA story, if the numbers are roughly those that will fit into one of the lecture theatres on campus, I struggle to think of anything more ridiculous than 300 students sat across Norwich’s HMO stock this winter separately heating poorly insulated Victorian houses to watch a lecture in – partly for sustainability reasons, but mainly for costs reasons.
The point he is making is that preferences for online learning have been stratified geographically. If you moved for university at great cost then a purely online experience is going to feel like a waste of money. Whereas “if you’re a student who struggles to leave the house, commutes from miles away or has complex commitments” a purely face-to-face experience is going to feel like a waste of money. Unfortunately, hybrid delivery as actually practiced, rather than what it can be with proper training and resourcing, tends to leave a group who “are getting a great experience and those who are relegated to second class student citizenry”. If you object to this point consider the difference between HBX live studio, with a technician/training and a web cam added to a poorly situated computer within a room with bad acoustics operated by a stressed lecturer trying to monitor Zoom while engage the room.
There’s nothing inherently impossible about teaching which is simultaneously excellent in both modes, the question is whether this is scalable given the political economy of the universities we currently inhabit. Universities which, at risk of stating the obvious, themselves are now grappling with double digit inflation alongside a broader cluster of pressures e.g. labour disputes, withdrawal of public funding, policy volatility, a perilous political environment. In this sense there are pretty profound organisational constraints upon innovation in online learning at precisely the moment when such innovation is more important than ever. To discuss the implementation of technologies and practices without considering the sociology and political economy of the university is problematic at the best of times, but in an unpredictable and crisis ridden environment it risks reducing our claims about future outcomes to a status of near meaninglessness. The actual environment in which implementation happens drops out.
This is why I think Dickinson’s point about reframing student preferences as student survival is so important because it foregrounds the economic implications of how university’s expect students to engage, which when student poverty becomes a widespread condition is a matter of literal survival rather than pedagogical or lifestyle preferences:
In other words, what the cost of living crisis does is turn the debate about being in-person or being remote into one that is not about choice, but about economic survival:
It becomes one where offering an hour of teaching exclusively in either mode could have profound implications for a student’s economic precarity.
It’s a situation where a university that knows that its mixture in the blend is harming its students economically has a moral duty to change course, so to speak.
It’s one where the university shouldn’t even suggest that students have a choice – it needs to take a decision in the economic interests of its students.
The living condition of many, perhaps most, students are in rapid free fall and we urgently need to grapple with what this means for teaching and learning within universities. The pandemic demonstrated a capacity to move fast in a crisis, rapidly changing aspects of the organisation which had formerly been taken for granted. There’s a need to do the same thing now. It remains to be seen whether poverty is treated with the same seriousness as the pandemic.