Students Support fund: juggling between university applications forms
By Clara M. Garcia (VP Wellbeing and Community)
The barriers to access to get assistance funding from UoY are a deterrent to students in need. Applications take too long to fill in, with specific evidence required that can put off students in need and with an excess of personal data being requested to share. I am launching the campaign #funding4all in order to gather students’ views on what to improve at the available funding and to demand the University of York to be transparent on the functioning of the funds and reconsider the evidence requested to apply for funding.
I would like to call for students to join this campaign by filling out this form. I will be gathering your thoughts on an open letter in order to present it to the University in a couple of weeks. Even if this blog is focused on the work done on the Student Support Fund, I am also working on the ESSF, Student Projects Fund, PGR funding, and emergency loans.
Student finance circumstances at UoY
In the past few months, I have been approached by a number of students in financial hardship as COVID-19 has exacerbated the precarity and financial difficulties that most students find themselves in. Many students are experiencing increasing difficulty in paying for accommodation, tuition fees and even weekly groceries, with international students struggling especially, as they are more vulnerable to currency changes and are usually not able to get support from their family -on the top of that, we need to consider that international students are not able to access most governmental support such as universal credit and that according to the home office, if they are unable to pay their fees, they can be threatened with suspension from their studies. Usually, these circumstances become more difficult when we listen to students with care responsibilities, or unable to work due to a family member on shielding, or with a disability.
These increased concerns haven’t been isolated cases, at the union, we have seen how since mid-April to June, the majority of cases referred to the GSA Advice Service were related to money issues (this is 52% of the total number of cases attended during that period), and it has become clear then that for UoY students, access financial support is becoming an issue. But this is not an issue locally, according to the Student Money Survey for 2020 59% of students have thought about dropping out of university, with 36% considering it due to money problems, and 74% of students rely on part-time work for money. These are some of the reasons why, since the beginning of the lockdown measures back in March, supporting students in financial hardship has been my priority, spending long hours reviewing the accessibility of the different support funds that University of York provides.
What has been done until now?
I raised these concerns in May through the Student Live Operations Group (SLOCG), and started to discuss the accessibility of the Student Support Fund (SSF) with the Assistant Registrar for Research and Financial Support, as this is one of the main available sources of financial assistance for students. As stated in the website: ‘the SSF is a fund created to assist students facing unexpected and unforeseen circumstances leading to financial difficulty’, students may be awarded up to a maximum of £3,000 per academic year, but the application requirements consisted of 25 pages of an online form that didn’t include the evidence requested. After a couple of weeks discussing these issues, the Student Financial Support team agreed that a review of the application process was most needed, taking action to streamline the application form and contracting additional assessors in order to decrease assessment times. Reports stating these changes were presented to SLOG.
Main issues in detail:
Evidence required sensible to students needs
The first issue that caught my eyes was the evidence required for students that wish to apply to the fund, as it was a long list of requirements that can take some time to gather and can be a deterrent to apply for the fund. The evidence required of University funds have been created following guidance from the National Association of Student Money Advisers (NASMA), and the minimum requirements are:
- Three months Bank/Building Society Statements for every account in the students name, including savings, overseas, and empty/unused accounts.
- An explanation of any money shown entering the students account and any amount over £100 shown leaving your account. With details on who the payment was from/to and what it was for.
- Evidence of your funding, for example, a Student Finance Award letter.
- Evidence of rent or mortgage, for example, the tenancy agreement.
- A signed declaration form.
Although these are requirements in line with the national guidance, each University decides on how they act upon them. For example, in their article 4.34 regarding bank statements, the NASMA guidance states that:
‘’Bank statements covering the most recent three months wherever possible for all accounts held. Some students may not be able to provide these immediately, and institutions should not wait for three months before making any payment. Where students cannot find statements and are concerned that banks will charge them for copies, administrators may find it helpful to give the student a letter for the bank explaining why the statement is needed’’
So the University could choose to make the three months bank statement requirement optional and include in their application form a section on the that allows the students to opt out of this requirement if they are unable to provide evidence immediately.
On the top of these minimum requirements, if the student applying for the SFF has a disability or caring responsibilities there will be other requirements and documents to provide. One of the requirements that specially concerns me, is the requirement to include a partner’s income in the application, and that means providing three month bank statements of the students’ partners. This is a major issue. If a student needs financial support and the University refuses it because it’s considering that the student can always count on their partner’s income, students are being led to be economically dependent on their partners, which can lead to abuses and types of violence. I have made explicit these concerns in many instances and forums, being assured that students can request to apply to the fund and assessed as single students and they can contact the Student Hub advisors for assistance. But this does not fix the problem, furthermore considering that the NASMA guidance does not require this evidence if the partner is not sponsoring the student directly, as stated in the article 4.80:
‘If the student confirms that their partner is sponsoring them, then only the partner’s net income above the MRP should be taken into account. The administrator should be satisfied that the partner’s net income should be sufficient to sponsor the student on their course and have enough money to cover their own basic living costs.’
When raising these questions, I have encountered different responses explaining that there is a misunderstanding in the reading of the article, as requesting partner’s statements is a sector practice and that in this context, ‘sponsorship’ refers to the partner fully supporting the student financially through their studies. If this is the case, then only the partner’s income should be considered (i.e. the student should be disregarded from the assessment). In all other cases, both the student’s and the partner’s income will be included in assessing a student’s needs, and references to the partner’s income are made throughout the document. Nevertheless, I continue to believe that this is simply not necessary, and should be a requirement reviewed and disregarded if the students’ partners are not sponsoring them.
Clear reporting and transparency of students funds
During this process, I realized that the SSF does not have any report available in order to update the status of the fund, and there is no structure in place for it to report to a particular University committee. That’s why, I requested a regular report of the status of the fund, that included a breakdown of the number of applications for the fund, the amount of money granted per request (by grants and loans), the amount of applications accepted and money granted (specifying how many claims were partially upheld), the average time taken for applications to be considered and the rejection criteria, among other information. The University Financial Support team is now collecting this data, but we are still missing a dedicated committee to be able to review the operation of the fund regularly, give feedback and raise questions on behalf of students.
Funding 4 all
For all these reasons, I am launching today the campaign #funding4all with three demands:
- For the University of York to report regularly on the status of student funding and assistance, including detailed clarification on each student fund.
- For the University of York to create a committee structure which membership includes the student unions, where all decisions regarding student funding are centralized.
- For the University of York to reconsider some of the evidence requested to students, as they constitute a deterrent and barriers to access.
I would like to call for students to join this campaign by filling out this form. I will be gathering your thoughts on an open letter in order to present it to the University in a couple of weeks.