Hardship Fund: 55% decrease in support given to students

By Emma Pinckard and Hugo Harris

Durham for Accessible Education (DfAE) has discovered that students are finding it increasingly difficult to secure funding through hardship loans at Durham University.

Information obtained by DfAE through the Freedom of Information Act has revealed that there has been a significant decrease in the amount of financial support given to Durham students through the various financial schemes under the University’s Hardship Fund.

Durham University has described its Hardship Fund as a means to “help students in financial hardship.” However, the University, admitting that “there are strict eligibility criteria,” has overseen a 55% decrease in support given to students since 2012/13.

In 2012/13 the Hardship Fund spent £340,487 through non-repayable grants, repayable hardship loans, and bridging loans. In 2015/16 this figure was reduced to only £154,325.

Moreover, the probability of having an application for support from the Hardship Fund has also significantly decreased.

Although during 2012/13, 25.1% of hardship grant applications were successful, the last academic year saw only 31 applications accepted of the 187 submitted. This, in addition to the revelation that current students are 30% less likely to be given any financial support in comparison to students of 2012/13, has been described as “concerning” by the DfAE.

Those applying for support from Hardship Fund are required to sign the following declaration: “I confirm that I am in real financial need which cannot reasonably be reduced to a manageable level through my own actions and that without financial support I will not be able to continue by course.”

The Freedom of Information request also revealed that the University’s Disability Support service received £369,255 in 2014/15, compared to £393,201 in 2013/14—demonstrating a 6% decrease in funding.

A Durham University spokesperson said: “It is important to clarify the difference between budget and expenditure.

“The expenditure in the Disability Support service is directly linked to student demand and individual support requirements, consequently it will fluctuate from year to year. This does not mean that there was not budget available to spend in 2014/15 if needed.

“The figures referenced are for expenditure on the Disability Support service only. The University spends significantly more than this on the support of disabled students. For example, on measures to improve the accessibility of the Estate and through the support they receive through their Colleges and Academic Departments. Therefore, the money spent by the Disability Support service is just one way in which the University supports disabled students.”

Jo Gower, Durham SU Community Officer, said: “Students with disabilities are entitled to as good a university experience as anyone else, so I’m committing to improving that experience as Community Officer this year.”

The University continued to address the decrease in hardship funding, commenting: “Hardship funding is also a demand and individual needs-based process. In 2012/13 exceptional funds were approved to support a cohort of international students who were experiencing major unexpected hardship.”

The news comes at a time when both University tuition and college accommodation fees are set to increase. Due to the expectation that Durham will meet the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), tuition fees are expected to surpass £9,500 for students beginning their studies in autumn 2018.

Last December, there were protests held over the University’s decision to increase college accommodation fees by 3.5% for this academic year. The Funeral for Accessible Education received national media coverage.

More recently, George Stanbury, a third-year English and Spanish student at Grey College, founded the group Durham for Accessible Education after petitioning Professor Stuart Corbridge, Vice-Chancellor and Warden of the University, to reverse the latest increase in tuition fees.

The group aims to ensure that Durham is a “welcoming” and “diverse” place for all by campaigning, petitioning, and communicating with the University about financial issues and other forms of student support.

Abigail Richards, Co-Chair of DfAE, has voiced her concerns about these new discoveries, saying that the information “really highlights that students from lower-income backgrounds are being left behind.

“Such a decrease in the University’s willingness to help those in financial hardship is incredibly troubling. The University uses hardship funds as a key example of its welfare provision, but the truth is that a significant number of students are being left to struggle at a time when they need to be supported,” Abigail said.

“We call on the University to be much more transparent about the way that hardship fund applications are assessed, as students have described the process as demeaning, humiliating and even damaging to mental health. A more open process will also help make sure that students who are in need of help are properly supported, allowing them to flourish at Durham.”

In addition to this, a further revelation from the Freedom of Information request revealed that Durham University spent “approximately £5,800” on reclaiming student debt from hardship loans.

Although the University has stated that they do not employ external debt collectors to regain debt owed by students who have received hardship loans, University regulations mean that these students can be prevented from graduating until their debt is cleared.

Hannah Drew, Welfare Officer at DfAE, commented on this disclosure: “Indeed, that the University actively attempts to reclaim hardship moneys from already vulnerable students highlights the disconnect between the student experience and the University’s priorities.

“The University’s time would be better spent eliminating the reasons for student hardship, such as overly expensive accommodation and spiraling course costs, instead of hounding and victimising students who face financial difficulties.”

Drew also expressed great concern at the further revelation that student support is increasingly taking the form of loans rather than grants, with only a sixth of applications resulting in a grant as opposed to a quarter in the 2012/13 academic year.

She said: “This change in emphasis from hardship grants to loans is very worrying, as it places students under pressure to repay yet more debt. Students turn to Durham in times of genuine hardship, and the declining support they provide highlights how unimportant student support is to them.”

The DfAE will be stationed outside the Bill Bryson Library on Friday 15th November to campaign further for accessible education at Durham in light of these recent findings.

Durham Students’ Union told Palatinate that it “welcomes student-led scrutiny of the University Hardship Fund and believes the large disparity between 2012/13 and 2015/16 in terms of hardship funds given to students is worthy of further exploration. We recognise that there is a strict eligibility criterion for students applying to the Hardship Fund and that the Student Financial Support Office and the Hardship Panel deal with applications on a case-by-case basis.

“However, in the context of accessibility, the Union believes the University should look at the Hardship Fund holistically (decision making processes, eligibility criteria, funding and referrals from Colleges) and explore the reasons for only one in six applications resulting in Hardship funding.”

The Students’ Union continued to question: “Are students being referred to the Hardship Fund when they are not eligible? Has the changing fee landscape coupled with the rising cost of living had an impact on the number of application? Is this year an anomaly? Or, has the University’s approach to Hardship funding become more restrictive — intentionally or unintentionally?

“The Students’ Union has positive working relationship with the Student Financial Support Office and will be happy to suggest more work is done to understand the implications of the data presented by Durham Students for Accessible Education.”

Photograph: Durham University

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