The news crashed in day after day: a Chancellor of the Exchequer sacked by the Prime Minister, largely for implementing policies on which the prime Minister has campaigned; a new Chancellor junking the entire contents of a budget published just a couple of weeks before; Home Secretary fired for elementary security breaches; chaotic scenes in the House of Commons, and then, on Thursday, just 44 days after assuming office, Liz Truss resigned as Prime Minister, thus becoming the shortest serving Prime Minister in British history. As I write this on Sunday morning, the governing party is once again huddled in finding a new leader who will, within a few days become Prime Minister. These are not normal ways for a mature parliamentary democracy to run itself. There is, of course, an almost ghoulish delight in watching the rolling news, an appalled fascination in what is happening hour by hour. But, as ever, the eye-catching political news, the preening individuals interviewed outside Parliament, the hurrying from back-room meeting to back-room meeting, all this is headline flotsam, and the sea on which it floats is a sea full of challenges.
Around the world, energy prices have shot up, largely, but not entirely, as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There is obvious knock-on impact: since all goods need to be produced and transported, an increase in the price of energy drives sharp increases in the cost of living. The economic slow puncture of Brexit is having its impact too. And inflation is an unforgiving economic foe: it rapidly exposes hitherto obscured or unacknowledged difficulties. Increases in energy costs hit hardest, for example, where homes are poorly insulated, as most British homes are, not least because tax-breaks and grants were slashed in pursuit of public spending restraints. And so on. The result of the Ukraine invasion, the energy price spike and a decade of under-investment in economic and social resilience is a cost-of-living crisis on an enormous scale.
Students face particular challenges. Decisions to attenuate maintenance support for students have left them exposed, and evidence from UUK and NUS is that students face the challenges of the months ahead with a lower average funding package than for a quarter of a century. Universities, of course, have their own funding challenges, which means that there are some severe constraints on what can be done: it’s regrettable, to say the least, that the government has not seen the need for a co-ordinated framework for support for students. Such is the scale of the economic challenge, and the impact of that challenge on students’ capacity to engage with their studies, that we cannot wait for politicians to sort out their leadership issues.
And so, like other universities, Sheffield Hallam has thought hard about how to support students through the months to come. We will be investing almost £5 million in 2022–23, through a series of targeted support packages to provide direct financial support to students. This is in addition to providing advice on managing budgets and signposting to other external services in collaboration with the Students’ Union advice centre. Our package of support includes a 60% increase in Hardship Fund awards which provide support if students experience unforeseen financial difficulties, an increase in funding for our Student Success Scholarship awards, which offer up to £2,100 to help students succeed and free access to the hundred most frequently used e-books, meaning students will not need to pay for core textbooks. There are support arrangements to meet costs for groups of students and for specific occasions. There is support which covers the cost of a gown hire for graduating students in hardship. We have doubled the resources in the International Emergency Fund to support international students. We have introduced a Sport Hardship Fund for those who can’t afford to participate in student sport. We have extended our provision for students experiencing period poverty. Finally, we know that the campus is, and needs to be, a place where students can feel warm and welcomed, which means that we have reviewed all of the arrangements at our campus catering outlets, freezing prices and re-introducing our £1 Wednesdays, where the cost food or drink will be £1 for any item all day.
Obviously, we cannot – because no-one can – mitigate all of the costs which arise from high inflation. That’s especially the case for this university, which recruits more students from under-represented backgrounds than any other in the UK. We’re also aware that the most effective measures will often be those which work together, so I’m delighted to see that the South Yorkshire Mayor will be capping bus fares at a maximum of £2 per journey. There will still be challenges for students, and we will review our provision as new information emerges. We know that the months ahead are going to be difficult, and that the political instability isn’t helping, but as far as we can, and for as long as we can, we will do what we can to remove the financial barriers which stand between our students and the opportunity to succeed.