Written by Rosie Neill

Head of marketing

A big thanks to Salma Hussain, President of King’s College London Students’ Union (KCLSU), who joined us for a candid conversation about financial anxiety in students and opportunities for universities and colleges.

Don’t panic if you missed it – here’s a summary and recording of the questions asked and the discussion between Salma and our Founder & CEO Vivi.

Is there anything you feel universities are doing particularly well to address digital literacy and digital poverty?

Both digital poverty and digital literacy aren’t new issues, but Covid-19 has brought them to the fore for more students.

Digital poverty

It’s called digital poverty when a student doesn’t have access to the digital tools that have become essential to participate in the new remote world we’ve all experienced over the last year, such as a laptop or WiFi.

While universities and colleges have done their best to address digital poverty, for example by sending WiFi dongles to students, loaning laptops, and having a number of hardship funds available, there’s still work to do on improving digital literacy.

Digital literacy

Digital literacy is a skill that’s beneficial to students far beyond their time at university and has become an employability prerequisite for many of today’s jobs. Often, programs like Excel, Word, Microsoft Teams and Zoom are used right from the interview stage. 

A key focus for universities and colleges should be how to prepare students with strong digital literacy skills in conjunction with academic study.

Recent research found that 67% of students who worry about money say this negatively impacts their mental health, is this what you’re seeing in KCL students?

The findings are worrying and the reason why the Student Money Mentors project was set up at KCL is to support students with financial concerns, hopefully before it gets to the point of impacting their mental health.

The challenges of remote support

There are clearly a number of students who are struggling but the worry isn’t just those who do reach out for help, it’s the students who either don’t or aren’t able to. Covid has increased the number of these students and the challenge is getting support to them remotely.

It can be easier when students are on campus, as they can go to a computer room to check their emails or access online resources, but now there are tales of students sharing one laptop with four siblings who also need to use it for homeschooling.

In fact, the problem is likely to be more widespread than we even know as the trouble with surveys that ask ‘do you have access to the internet?’ is that the survey is usually asked via the internet! Those who don’t have internet access won’t be responding, so the numbers are likely to be higher in actuality.

Addressing diverse experiences

Another consideration for universities and colleges is that students are experiencing a range of diverse challenges when it comes to their financial situation. 

There are some students who can’t find part-time jobs, those who are on furlough or whose parents/guardians are, and those who are looking into becoming entrepreneurial and starting a side hustle.

Circumstances will also vary for certain groups, like international students, who may have their own unique challenges. For example in some countries, WiFi can be unaffordable or inaccessible for students due to cost or a lack of availability in the area they live.

Download the report for the research findings.

Given limited resources and time, how can support staff address the unique challenges of all students?

Listening to the student voice

The most impactful thing support staff can do is to listen to the student voice; this can help with prioritisation and knowing where to focus limited resources.

There are so many problems experienced by the student body across the year – some of these are deeply felt and some are widely felt. Institutions need to look at both those that affect the greatest number of people, but also those that have the greatest effect. Without student feedback, how can universities and colleges know what these really are?

It’s vital to ensure that marginalised groups are also heard. The Students’ Union can be a good place to start as they usually have representative structures in place.

“Have your ears to the ground constantly to understand what students need and want.”

Salma Hussain President

Gratitude for support staff

Side note: we asked students recently for their thoughts on their experience with their institution’s support staff and there was a lot of love shared! See what they had to say.

What do you think can be done to improve the relationship between universities and the Students’ Union in some institutions?

The relationship between university and Students’ Union is so important as the SU can offer valuable insights and opinions and help prevent problems before they have a chance to occur.

Building trust and mutual respect

Relationships should be built with the elected officers, who students have chosen for a reason as they believe they will represent students’ interests, but also the staff members of the union – these stay constant each year while the elected officers change.

The best way to do this is to build trust and mutual respect, while having an understanding that points of view may differ. At the end of the day, you’re all working towards a shared goal and everyone has students’ best interests at heart.

Students told us there’s a gap between how much money they have each month and how much they feel they need to complete their degree (£329 a month on average), do you feel students are able to access and apply for the additional support they need?

There are unfortunately still a number of barriers to students accessing funding. All universities are trying their best but there are still issues, which are often very specific to individual students.

Key challenges

More needed than provided

There can often be a gap between the hardship funding awarded by universities and what the student needs. This can be due to varying individual circumstances, for example, international students may have been affected by currency depreciation. Perhaps a question to ask is whether it be more effective for institutions to give fewer bursaries but of larger amounts?

Inclusivity of language

Many students still have feelings of shame and embarrassment about applying for support. A review of the language used throughout the process could go some way to removing any stigma.

Uncertainty about available support

Many students are unsure about what support is available to them and whether or not they’re eligible. Making sure this information is clear and easily discoverable for students is vital.

Siloed services

For a holistic approach to supporting students, ideally all university support services will be interlinked with financial support and peer support.

“University mental wellbeing services need to be linked with the financial support services. Wellbeing is linked to financial issues so if you solve a financial issue, maybe that’ll alleviate some of the pressures on your mental wellbeing.”

Salma Hussain President

Do you think there’s enough collaboration between student services, mental health support and the financial team?

In some institutions there is, but in others there’s still work to be done to ensure all staff within all areas know about all financial support on offer to students. Of course, this can be difficult in such large organisations.

A one-pager with support info

One thing that could help is giving all students a one-pager when they join the university that they can stick on the fridge, which clearly explains where they can go and what they should do for any issue they may have. 

Rather than giving multiple email addresses and phone numbers, could students have just one port of call for all issues? With queries then fielded to the right contact by staff.

What do you think the sector perhaps isn’t paying enough attention to when it comes to student support?

A holistic approach to student support

There has been a barrage of governmental policies over the last year and so many things for universities and colleges to focus on. For example, freedom of speech, decolonisation, BAME attainment gap, and intersectionality. This can often lead to work being duplicated by multiple faculties.

Perhaps what is missing is the question: “How does everything link together?” For instance, financial concerns will amplify other challenges but these can often be overlooked. Is the sector missing an opportunity to take a holistic approach to supporting students? Again, interlinking services and improving communication between teams can go some way towards improving this.

Starting early

It will be beneficial to every student to start thinking about their finances early, so anything universities and colleges can do to prepare students before they arrive on campus is a good idea. 

Some students ask questions about bursaries on open days, but perhaps it’s those who don’t think ahead and don’t ask these questions that end up needing the most support – how can they be reached?

One size doesn’t fit all

An important consideration is that the issue with a wider sector approach is that students at different universities have different challenges. For example, students at universities where the majority receive financial support from the ‘bank of Mum and Dad’ will have different issues to commuter students who have higher transport costs, and students studying in London struggling with exceptionally high rent costs.

Should students with high household income receive financial support when they don’t get it from their parents?

It doesn’t make sense for decisions about financial support for students to be made on the basis of household income if they don’t receive any money from their parents – both when it comes to applying for student finance and hardship funding.

Students’ potential is often limited as they discount certain regions, such as London, on cost alone – determining they can’t afford to consider it with their means tested maintenance loan.

More individual circumstances need to be taken into account, rather than blanket rules for all students based on parental household income. As a country we need to address what we believe the value of higher education is for young people, and how do we ensure it can happen for everyone?

Salma’s 2 key takeaways

  • Talk to your Student’s Union and find out what they’re hearing from students at the moment
  • Look at the quick wins that will most help students e.g. creating a one-pager with support info or asking all faculties and reps etc. to send an email to students about available financial support

Watch the recording

If you have any questions or comments for Salma, you can get in touch with her via the KCLSU Twitter account. 

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