Coronavirus (COVID-19): student hardship - case studies: report

Final research report on case studies of student hardship during COVID-19.

4. Case study interviews – results 

Through the background information gathering stage undertaken with institutions and third sector organisations[7] prior to the interviews (see Chapter 3), it was possible to identify particular circumstances where the impacts of the COVID-19 related restrictions could be seen as distinct, depending on student demographics. It was also a priority to speak to working students, as they would most likely have been affected by lockdown related loss of income. 

In practice, the majority of the interviews (8 out of 10) were with working students.  This working context was set against other key factors identified as being of particular relevance to student hardship. Together, these factors formed the backbone of the thematic case studies and are as follows: 

1. Working students;
2. Students with caring responsibilities;
3. International students;
4. EU students; and
5. Care experienced and/or estranged students.

The working students case study has the richest evidence, owing to the range of experiences reflected in these interviews and also because 8 of the 10 students interviewed were in this category (see Box 2.1).  Accordingly, generalisations from this research about working students are likely to be the most robust, albeit limited to evidence from the eight 'working student' interviews undertaken. In sections where other case study categories are discussed, the evidence is more limited and the focus is on bringing out the unique circumstances particular to the types of students interviewed. In all cases, the interview findings have been set against the background information provided by institutions as part of the initial data gathering stages.

4.1 Case Study (1): Working Students

Most of the students (8 out of 10) interviewed as part of this project reported that they had either been working or actively looking for work at the time lockdown was announced in March 2020. In this sense, the working student case study is the most complete and representative of the range of students we have spoken to. The term 'working students' could refer to either those in employment in March 2020, or expecting to work in the subsequent months.

The amount of time spent working varied from a couple of hours per week, assisting with presenting lab work at university (i.e. work within the 'university' sector) to working full time as part of an industrial placement. For all but one of the working students interviewed, lockdown meant loss of income from employment either as a result of complete or partial loss of work. The following main themes emerged from the analysis of interview data: (i) loss of income; (ii) inability to find alternative employment; (iii) reliance on benefits and credit; (iv) lack of targeted support; and (v) lack of clarity about the future. These themes are outlined in more detail in the sub-sections below. 

4.1.1 Loss of income 

All but one of the working students interviewed as part of this project described experiencing a loss of income as a result of the COVID-19 related lockdown restrictions. In most cases, this loss of income has had a substantial impact on the students' ability to pay their bills and rent, as well as to make savings for the academic year ahead. Some of the students also mentioned experiencing a lack of direction and sense of purpose due to being unable to work.

The working students interviewed were employed in a variety of sectors and under a range of contractual conditions prior to lockdown. Sectors mentioned were: (i) hospitality; (ii) retail; (iii) delivery services; (iv) university (e.g. lab demonstrators); and (v) real estate. Some relied on zero hours contracts (ZHCs) and found their hours reduced dramatically but with only limited / no furlough arrangements offered to compensate for that loss, closely mirroring feedback from the universities (see section 3.1). One student described how their employer offered furlough payments that only covered the contracted hours, but being on a ZHC meant that this did not reflect the actual earnings lost. Again, this was an issue highlighted by the institutions in their feedback (see section 3.1) and does not appear to be an isolated case. 

Those who were employed through their university, either as lab assistants or industrial placement students, saw those employment arrangements disappear as a result of the restrictions on face-to-face contact. For some students, such as international students or those with caring responsibilities, being able to work a few hours every week on campus provided a valuable opportunity to supplement their income using a predictable part-time pattern. In the case of industrial placements, the perceived loss extended to their ability to complete experiments relevant to writing up the final thesis.

Box 4.1: Lost job opportunities and associated impacts

One college student interviewed was hoping to save money for the forthcoming academic year by seeking opportunities in the hospitality sector over the summer. Such opportunities have become scarce and as someone in the shielding category they made the decision to leave the city they study in to stay with their family in a rural setting that was perceived to be safer. They are now considering attending classes remotely in the new academic year, which will also help with not having to pay rent for student accommodation.

A couple of students were also going through recruitment at the time lockdown was announced and have lost the opportunity to take up the work they had applied for as a result of the restrictions (see Box 4.1 above).

In contrast to the majority of interviewees who had lost their income, there was one working student whose circumstances remained more or less the same throughout lockdown. They were employed at a supermarket prior to lockdown and have managed to retain that job with only a small change to their hours. While this was a positive example of someone being able to support themselves throughout the lockdown period, such positive experiences were very rare in the interviews undertaken (seven of the eight working students spoken to had lost at least some income during lockdown). As discussed further below, finding work in retail or hospitality was particularly challenging for students over the lockdown period, echoing feedback from the universities (see section 3.1).

In one unique case, a student was self-employed but reported having lost income as a result of the wider economic situation affecting their particular sector of employment (housing). 

Overall, apart from two interviewed individuals, the loss of income resulting from COVID-19 restrictions was something that students were able to cope with to a degree by either: (i) cutting down on their spending; (ii) relying on benefits and discretionary funds; and / or (iii) family support. Importantly, in none of the interviews were students able to secure alternative employment over the lockdown period, even when some opportunities were perceived to exist. This is discussed separately at section 4.1.2 below.

The financial circumstances of some students taking part in the interviews were closely connected with the circumstances of their partners, which corresponds with feedback from the institutions (see section 3.1). Where students relied on their partners' income to support themselves, the wider job market situation and threat of job losses affecting their partners had a clear impact on their own livelihoods. This is discussed separately in the students with caring responsibilities case study (see section 4.2).

Box 4.2: Students 'falling between the cracks in the system'

In one such example, a student described working on a zero hours contract and losing most of their hours over the lockdown period. Despite them having considerable work experience, they could not find alternative employment and have struggled navigating the benefits system that could only offer limited assistance. With no friends or family to rely on, they've resorted to having to sell their belongings and depending on credit cards to pay their rent and bills. 

In a couple of more extreme cases, the interplay of personal circumstances (such as being an international student or an estranged student with no family support) and external factors such as limited work availability have compounded the difficult financial situation of the students who had very limited opportunities to find alternative means of support. In those cases, students reported 'falling between the cracks in the system' and facing spiralling debt (see Box 4.2 above).

4.1.2 Inability to find alternative employment 

Most, but not all of the students who reported loss of income chose to seek alternative employment during the lockdown period. Many in this situation reported that finding only a limited number of alternative jobs available (mainly in supermarkets and health related roles) and in most cases there were so many applicants that students ended up not hearing back from the employers if they applied. Students also thought that those with experience in relevant sectors were more likely to receive job offers, and that they perceived competition for the few available jobs to be particularly fierce over the period of lockdown.

Three of the students interviewed did manage to find work offers in the lockdown period. Opportunities mentioned included: (i) working in a hospitality role at an NHS testing centre; (ii) work for the NHS in a health related role; and (iii) at a Royal Mail sorting centre. None of those opportunities were perceived to have been suitable for the interviewed students, who mentioned: (i) problems with transport to the workplace over the period of lockdown; (ii) concerns over their own health and safety (where the risk of contracting COVID-19 was seen as too high to justify taking up the work); and (iii) problems with getting Disclosure Scotland and PVG checks (Protected and Vulnerable Groups – a type of enhanced disclosure check) in time to be able to take up the work offer. 

Some students interviewed chose not to seek alternative employment over the lockdown period. This was partially due to the perceived difficulty of finding work (which students were made aware of through their social networks) and the need to balance household responsibilities with their studies (in the case of students with childcare responsibilities). Those students would usually express less of a concern about their ability to support themselves and make comparisons to other students that were perceived to be in a much harder position. 

Box 4.3: Students demonstrating adaptability in accessing employment

One of the interview participants mentioned that they were to attend training that would allow them to work in a specialised NHS role. This was not related to their course of study or previous experience but was a way of securing employment in an area where job prospects were perceived to be good.

As part of the interviews, students were also asked about any potential changes to their work situation and work aspirations in the post-lockdown reality. Most reported that they expect the situation to improve somewhat as lockdown continued to be eased but have yet to see any concrete changes in terms of increased opportunities or resumption of recruitment. Fear of contracting COVID-19 and uncertainty about the safety of working conditions was raised as a specific barrier to taking up employment in the new academic year by a number of the interviewees. On the other hand, there is also evidence of adaptability and resourcefulness in making the most of the new situation (see Box 4.3 above).

4.1.3 Reliance on benefits and credit 

Most of the working students interviewed reported having applied for benefits or financial support. A few also used credit cards and overdraft facilities to help pay their rent and utility bills. Some of those students were keen to stress that applying for financial assistance was not something that they took lightly and would not have considered before they were forced to by the challenging lockdown circumstances. 

A couple of the students have chosen not to apply for any support, one of the students said they "were not stressed about not being able to make ends meet" and "wanted other people in a worse position to take advantage" (University student interview particpant) of the support offered.  The perception that there were students in much worse circumstances and a feeling of solidarity with them was something that was brought up repeatedly in the interviews. Young students interviewed were less likely to take up benefits or formal financial assistance if they had the option to live with their family.

Working students typically mentioned the following sources of support: (i) universal credit; (ii) discretionary funds offered by their university / college; and (iii) council funding.  These sources of funding are discussed further below.

Universal credit

Most of the working students from the UK interviewed had used Universal Credit (UC) to help them pay for rent and bills over the lockdown period. While some of the students interviewed had already applied for UC before lockdown and were familiar with how the system works, there were those who had never had to apply before and found the process challenging (see Box 4.4).

Box 4.4: Student experiences applying for Universal Credit (UC)

One of the students interviewed said that the DWP did not seem to understand the student funding portion of the income on the application for UC and that the organisation seemed generally less used to dealing with students applying for the benefit. Separate calls with DWP advisers needed to be arranged to explain the particularities of student finance and student bursaries in particular, which has been frustrating to the student.

This type of experience does not seem to be unique. Other students interviewed also experienced a lack of understanding of student funding on the part of DWP advisors.

Another student reported that in addition to the long waiting times for their UC application to be processed, the amount they then received was incorrect and they felt really let down by the system. 

Discretionary funds

Most university students interviewed had access to some sort of funding (discretionary or other) offered by their institutions. These could take the form of loans and bursaries, but the particular arrangements would differ depending on the institution involved[8]. The student experiences identified in the interviews will not necessarily cover all types of student finance arrangements available to students in institutions throughout Scotland.

Almost all of the (working and non-working) students who applied for loans and bursaries[9] from their institutions have managed to receive them at least once. Most students commented on their inability to receive more than one instalment of the discretionary funding however, and the fact that wait times for decisions about such funding could take a long time (in one of the cases, it was said to have been 10 weeks), leaving the students unable to plan their spending and contributing to the hardship experienced. From the interviews, it became clear that discretionary funds were perceived to be allocated on a wide basis of eligibility and not according to particular need. This was particularly concerning to students who could not rely on family support for financial assistance, and who therefore felt that they should have been identified as a priority for such funding by their universities. As mentioned earlier, many students interviewed expressed an understanding that other students were in more acute need of financial support.  Given the perceived limited financial resources available to their institutions, they subsequently did not apply for such funds themselves.

Out of the three college students interviewed, two were not interested in applying for funding but were generally aware that colleges offered some assistance. Another commented on the complete lack of information about financial assistance offered by their particular institution and the inability to speak to anyone within the college about support. In their own words "I feel like every door was closed, every single door" (HE college student interview participant).

Council funding

Students interviewed reported mixed experiences with approaching local authorities for support. While some were successful in receiving one off forms of support and council tax breaks, a small number of students reported not being able to speak to anyone at the council about their problems, due to the high volume of callers. 

4.1.4 Lack of targeted support and complex support system

The mature students interviewed felt better placed to navigate the often complex financial support system, compared to their younger counterparts. They were also less likely to rely on online information sessions organised by their institutions and were able to offer some informal advice to other students looking for information.

"I just think there needs to a bit of pastoral care in education. (…) nobody tells you anything, you've got to go and look it up yourself. You listen to your friends saying you're due this and that and then when you do phone people they say 'oh, I'm not really here to tell you that'(…). I don't think there's a clear enough understanding of what people are due" (HE college student interview participant)

At least one student also highlighted problems with how different sources of financial support interacted with each other (see Box 4.5).

Box 4.5: Problems with different sources of financial support interacting 

In one particular case, an emergency loan from the university went directly to cover rent arrears.  When discretionary university funding came through at a later time, a large chunk of it had to be used to pay off the emergency loan, instead of contributing towards the bills and rent.

4.1.5 Lack of clarity about the future 

Most of the students interviewed highlighted the lack of certainty about their exact study arrangements in the new academic year, as well as the lack of job certainty in the near future. On a few occasions, students expressed concerns about student  funding coming in on time, given that some institutions were still to confirm if the academic year was to restart in September, or at a later date.

In other cases the institutions have already confirmed term / start dates for the new academic year and the uncertainty was more about how long the remote study arrangements would be in place, as this would impact how long students might stay with their families, therefore avoiding having to pay rent in the place of study.

Box 4.6: Uncertainty about the future – an international student's perspective

For one of the international students interviewed, the uncertainty about the wider job market meant that the period of a few months following their degree completion that could potentially be used for job searches in accordance with visa regulations, will probably offer far fewer opportunities than originally anticipated. 

As highlighted in the feedback from institutions (Chapter 3), the lack of certainty about being able to resume employment in the new academic year is making students and their partners face difficult decisions. One student with childcare responsibilities explained how their partner had decided to take on full time study to be able to access the safety of student funding, following the loss of their job.

4.2 Case Study (2): Students with caring responsibilities

Two of the students interviewed as part of the project had caring responsibilities. 

It was only possible to identify students who had childcare responsibilities.  However, it is important to recognise that those taking care of an adult may be faced with a unique set of challenges that are beyond the scope of this current research. The importance of a wider societal and economic context was particularly important where students had to rely on external childcare and income from their employed partners. 

4.2.1 Lack of suitable childcare arrangements

Students interviewed had to deal with the additional challenge of finding time for childcare in addition to studying. While one of the students took care of their child while their partner worked, the other was a single parent and had to rely on formal childcare (see Box 4.7).

Box 4.7: Issues and decisions faced by students requiring childcare support

One student who was also a single parent commented on the lack of childcare provision over the lockdown period, which prevented them from looking for work. While childcare has now become available as a result of lockdown restrictions being eased, they expressed concerns over potentially exposing their child to COVID-19 and preferred to wait for a vaccine to become available before relying on childcare again.

4.2.2 Reliance on second income and child specific sources of funding

Both students with childcare responsibilities interviewed reported relying on their partners' or ex partners' income to help cover the costs of childcare. In the latter case this took the form of child support arrangements paid by the ex-partner.  In one of the cases, the partner had lost their job as a result of lockdown and had decided to start college, which should help with paying some of the bills when they become eligible for student support.

In the case of the single parent relying on their ex-partner, the ex-partner was uncertain about being able to keep their job at the time of the interview, which could have serious implications for the overall finances of the student. At the moment they relied on student funding, single child allowance and UC but could not make ends meet without the additional funds from their ex-partner. 

The lack of student funding over the summer has been identified as an issue by most of the students interviewed and was of particular importance to students with childcare responsibilities and those without wider family support. As one interviewee argued "SAAS maintenance loans had to be paid off anyway, so why not extend them?" (HE college student interview participant).  This issue is also something that was raised through the contextual data gathering stage (see Chapter 3). 

4.3 Case Study (3): International students

International students were a distinct category in terms of how the COVID-19 related restrictions affected them financially. In the two interviews undertaken with students in this category, the economic situation in the students' countries of origin was a factor compounding their own financial circumstances (see Box 4.8).

Box 4.8: Financial issues experienced by international students during COVID-19

One of the international students interviewed relied on family in their country of origin to support them financially throughout their degree. When the family ran into financial difficulties as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were unable to provide that support. As a result of visa restrictions, the student could not work more than 20 hours a week and relied on lab assistant work at their university. This work has become unavailable as a result of lockdown. 

The other international student interviewed sent remittances to their country of origin but felt they were unable to support their family as they had lost their casual work as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. Student funds were provided to the student despite their international status and these were seen as a 'lifeline'. 

Both international students described significant challenges to their mental health, resulting from the COVID-19 isolation, loss of opportunities to work, uncertainty about the future but also compounded by lack of friends and a support network at their place of study. It is perhaps not surprising that many students arriving in a new destination to undertake a limited period of intense study would have less time and opportunity to develop more meaningful relationships in the local community during that time. Information provided by universities and third sector suggests that this group of students is often particularly badly affected by a lack of formal financial support when other sources of funding become unavailable (see section 3.1).

The international students interviewed reported on the availability of emotional support through the university as well as online training dealing with finding work, but these were not perceived to be useful. The emotional support was seen as merely listening and not being able to address the root of the mental health issues such as loss of security, while the employability training was seen as something that ultimately "you cannot put on your CV" (University student interview participant). 

4.4 Case Study (4): EU Students 

Two EU students were interviewed as part of the case study interviews. One was self-employed, while another one still lived at home with their parents and was about to start the first year of their degree after the summer. Neither of the students have applied for any additional support, saying they have mostly been able to support themselves without the need to apply for additional help. The student who was self-employed reported some loss in earnings as a result of the slower economy over lockdown and had to cut back on expenses, but this has not threatened their ability to pay rent or bills. Both students have successfully applied for SAAS grants and reported finding the process straightforward[10].

4.5 Case Study (5): Care experienced and estranged students

The background information gathering stage with universities and third sector providers highlighted the particularly vulnerable position care experienced and estranged students found themselves in as a result of lockdown restrictions. This was largely due to a lack of access to informal financial support networks offered to other categories of students considered in this research (e.g. by their families).

Two of the students interviewed could be classified as care experienced and estranged (falling into one of those categories each). Their contrasting experiences of hardship appeared to have resulted largely due to the fact that one of them had been employed by a supermarket at the time lockdown was announced and was able to hold on to that job. The less positive experience is outlined at Box 4.9 below.

Box 4.9: Experiences of estranged students during COVID-19

One estranged student interviewed reported having lost the bulk of their hours as a delivery driver with the company refusing to close down and offer furlough to their staff. The inability to find alternative sources of employment and the limited options for discretionary support meant the student needed to access commercial credit to just pay off the arrears on rent and bills. They felt very strongly that students in similar circumstances, without families to fall back on, should be identified and prioritised for support by universities.

The care experienced student interviewed was keen to highlight that despite being in the fortunate position of having been able to hold on to their job, they were aware of other care experienced students who were in a very precarious position as having work could make all the difference between being able to pay their bills or not. 



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