This is a guest blog post by Pete Quinn. Pete Quinn is a consultant working with a range of educational, arts, heritage and financial institutions in the UK and Asia with a broad focus on inclusion. Pete’s current focus includes disability inclusion, wellbeing initiatives, authentic allyship and conscious decision making (as opposed to unconscious bias). Pete began his student support career with Oxford Brookes University, then worked across the University of Oxford before moving to the University of York.
The traditional funding application process
In the early noughties, I worked in the department at the University of Oxford that was then the home for all the (10,000+) part-time (mostly mature) students.
My role included setting up and administering the application processes for ‘access funds’, bursaries, grants and other awards. Although often only a few hundred pounds, these funds would enable students to continue in spite of life happening.
Thus, multi-page forms were created, colour coded spreadsheets set-up, committees updated, and links created with the finance office to issue the funds to successful applicants.
Applications flowed in, bank statements and other evidence were stapled to forms, council tax proof was cobbled together, explanatory statements collated, sign off achieved, and then internal bumph to secure cheque was completed.
I worked studiously with applicants to make the bureaucracy as manageable as possible but at the time, I failed to recognise that the system wasn’t built for the need of the student.
Reflecting on those systems now, not once did I recognise that many times, we had much of the information we needed somewhere else. Nor did I recognise that reducing bureaucracy would ease the student’s stress, as well as mine in administering the process.
Fast forward to 2020, and surely things are different?
As we’ve seen with the recent ‘home for Christmas in spite of Covid’ debate, there is still a pervading presumption that students are uniformly resident on a campus.
In reality, and even more so lately, universities are welcoming many more ‘commuter students’ who are more likely to be first-in-family, to come from a lower-income household, to be mature students, and to have an ethnic minority background.
Whether commuting or not, more than 15% of all students have told their university about their dyslexic difficulties, their mental health challenges or other disabilities.
In response, universities and colleges provide adjustments to teaching and learning and aim to deliver accessible digital resources, apps and websites. But these adjustments are rarely extended to forms, systems and processes relating to financial support.
This is not to say that universities and colleges are alone in putting administrative barriers in place. A government Disabled Students Allowances (DSA) application can involve a 24-page form accompanied by a 13-page guidance note.
Savvy universities and colleges have begun to remove barriers (physical, procedural or practical) to student living and learning. They have recognised the incremental cumulative impact on student success if buildings, systems and processes lack clarity and engender confusion, stress and frustration.
Given that students can often order books, laptops, clothes and food with one click, get takeaway food, cinema tickets and travel on an app and undertake other transactions with a swipe, is it surprising that frustration accompanies applying for financial support?
Taking action is not just about “legal compliance”, but affords universities an opportunity to respond to the University Mental Health Charter or the Mentally Healthy Universities Framework by demonstrating a wish to reduce stress in their workforce, alongside the student body, by refining stressful processes.
As with adjustments to assessment, which Covid has shown possible for disabled students, so too can refinements be made to applying for financial support.
 EA(2010) and the recently enforceable Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018
Lengthy payment processes
Pre-Covid, anyone delivering emergency financial support (anything from delayed loans or rental deposits, redundancy, family disputes or funds taking longer to arrive than envisaged) on (inevitably) a Friday, already faced the dilemma of a paperwork process that would take a while.
Even then, a successful outcome may not result in payment until the following week because of ‘the system’. For example, the finance team may historically finish early on a Friday or the petty cash had been used that week.
The result now, as then, is stressed students, stressed dependents, and stressed staff from a system still on spreadsheets.
With current Covid impacts, the complexity increases within all these domains and is further complicated by processes reliant on paper, ‘evidence’ submission, and that issuing money is a separate process.
3 ways to make the process easier for students and staff
1. Review and refine
If you haven’t already, review and refine your procedures to remove unnecessary evidence requests that may be still present in spite of evolutions in the process sense checking the current possibilities versus the previous assumptions.
Tip: Use (paid) students as experts by experience in doing so.
2. Pre-populate and guide
Pre-populate as much as possible of the form you provide to students. To do this, use your existing systems and offer the application process online, including explaining and demonstrating via a WAGOLL (What A Good One Looks Like) example.
Tip: Use a captioned short video to do so.
3. Research products that can help
I’m always looking for products or processes that reduce barriers and solve historical problems. Don’t just look at this through the lens of the student, but also think of the stress reduction for the teams overseeing the process.
Tip: Take a look at the Blackbullion Funding Tool, proven to relieve pressure for students and staff.
An opportunity for improvement
Pandemics have previously resulted in change for the better. Hopefully post-Covid, our increasing awareness of the issues of inequality can foster change.
Normalising the need for students to access financial support (hence why it’s there!) is important. But ensuring it is a smooth and responsive process is critical to demonstrate that it matters in terms of retention of students and enabling financial support teams to focus on the people not the problematic processes.
Find out more about the Blackbullion Funding Tool, the online funds management system that’s been built with accessibility at its heart.