OPINION: University closures threaten the most disadvantaged students
Posted on: 7 July 2020
Yesterday morning the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) reported that due to the implications of loss of funding from Covid-19, there were at least thirteen UK universities which were at risk of financial collapse. This puts students studying at these unnamed providers at risk of having to change institutions part-way through their course, massively disrupting their higher education experience and studies already completed.
The IFS has recommended “a very tightly targeted bailout aimed at keeping these  institutions afloat”, as the recent government funding and measures announced are more likely to support research-intensive universities and those currently ranking higher on university league tables.
Whilst there has been a lot of discussion about the implications of this bailout on the government and higher education sector as a whole, there hasn’t been enough discussion about how a lack of financial support to institutions could impact students. The Office for Students (OfS) has been very clear in warning universities that they must give clear guidance around how courses could be impacted by Covid-19 and protecting their rights as consumers. But if a student’s university is forced to close whilst they are in the middle of their degree course, what is next for them, and will they want to stay in HE?
At Student Hubs, we work with our five university partners to reach students who are less likely to engage in core university provision. This can include students who may face challenges in developing graduate employability skills due to commitments outside of their degree courses, or students who come from a range of backgrounds typically named as ‘widening participation’. Arguably, it is those students who already face significant challenges and barriers in accessing HE which will be most impacted by their university being forced to close.
Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the Office for Students said, as quoted in this BBC article, that in the circumstances of universities facing financial difficulties, “We will be proactive in ensuring students’ interests are protected, including helping make sure that students can find an appropriate course elsewhere should any provider close.” But what issues does this raise for students?
If you have chosen a university based on its proximity to your home for any number of reasons — for example being a carer, a mature student, having a disability, parenting responsibilities — it is not as simple as getting students to move institutions. Currently, most delivery is being planned online for at least the first term of the 2020-21 academic year, which would prove to be more accessible for these students. But what happens when this delivery returns to an in-person format? We cannot ask these students to uproot their lives to carry on their education: they will simply leave their degree courses.
Choosing a university is a deeply personal choice for many students. It is not purely about the degree of study, but about the campus, the facilities, the access to support, and the ability to be with a community where you feel you belong. Telling students to find another provider and carry on with a degree which shares a similar title to their former one risks massively devaluing the university experience. It treats students only as consumers of a product easily replaced, rather than individuals with lives and families and a thousand other things to consider.
Students have seen unprecedented disruption to their studies in the past academic year through no fault of their own. University closures could see thousands of students being in limbo, with many potentially likely to make the decision not to re-engage with higher education.
Most of those students are likely to be those who had already faced significant barriers in their journey to university. It would be a disservice to them and to the work the whole sector has been doing in widening participation to fail them in this way by not seriously considering the impact of what financial collapse would mean for these institutions and their local communities.
We would recommend moving forward that all students’ interests are considered, especially those from widening participation backgrounds, and that they are kept at the heart of these discussions in the response to Covid-19 by the HE sector.