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No one could deny how the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated society’s structural inequalities, with marginalised and disadvantaged communities hardest hit. In higher education, it’s the students already facing barriers at university that are feeling the real weight of the pandemic. KU Cares is a scheme offering targeted and specialised support to over 250 students with experience of local authority care and those estranged from their families, young adult carers, and forced migrants (through our Sanctuary Scholarship).

Thanks to the work of Stand Alone, NNECL, Unite, Spectra, and Become, there has been positive attention about the needs of care-experienced and estranged students at university. Their student survey gave us a sense of the challenges that they were facing, provoking a fantastic response from the sector in implementing support for these students.

Young adult carers who care for a family member with an illness or disability, mental health condition, or addiction, will take on the role of the supporter at home. They are not as consistently recognised across HE as they deserve to be. According to the Carer’s Week report, there are an estimated 13.6 million unpaid carers in the UK, with an increase of 4.5 million since the coronavirus outbreak. Around 19% (2.5 million) are under the age of 25.

As the designated contact for care leavers and young adult carers at Kingston, I work with students from the point of application, through to graduation. All of the students I’ve been working with have been adversely affected by the pandemic. Many of these issues already existed but the severity of them has increased significantly.

Financial difficulties

Time and time again, a problem I see is that the funding that students will have access to, will not cover their living costs. Even if a student in eligible for the maximum maintenance loan, many will struggle because student funding is still built on the idea of an 18-year-old attending university, with a (cost-free) parental home to return to in the holidays.

Many of our young adult carers have also faced financial hardship. These students are not necessarily eligible for the maximum amount from Student Finance because many will live at home to fulfill their caring responsibilities. This does not consider the (often informal) financial responsibilities such as food and household bills, contributing to additional family costs – all on top of their own living and study costs.

If the pandemic has highlighted anything it’s how many of our KU Cares students rely on part-time work to supplement their own, and sometimes their family’s, income. As workplaces closed and redundancies were made, students who were just about making ends meet, were suddenly not able to meet their most basic living costs.

Housing and accommodation

Only a small proportion of our KU Cares students actually live in traditional student accommodation, with many commuting from across London and Surrey. Falling into rent arrears will have a significant impact on a student – it creates a high level of instability with their most basic needs which has a detrimental impact on everything else. Even with the temporary ban on evictions, students struggling to pay rent have been plagued by the anxiety of potentially being made homeless, thousands of pounds in debt.

Every year we work with students living in temporary accommodation while they wait for more permanent housing from the local authority. This wait is often indefinite and full of uncertainty. These types of housing are often outsourced to private providers and can be very expensive. When that young person becomes a full-time student (and ineligible for any benefits they could claim before university), they then must pay something like £300 a week for their accommodation. The maximum maintenance loan provides around £230 a week for all living costs – can you spot a problem? If they then decide to leave that accommodation and move somewhere more affordable (such as halls), they risk being removed from the housing waiting list as they would no longer be considered a priority. Ultimately, these students are forced to choose between stable housing and their education.

As many of us switched to home working, we noticed the boundaries between work and everything else blur. Our young adult carers saw their caring role intensified because of the pandemic and were also spending significantly more time at home than before, meaning they were constantly in that caring environment. This meant that any boundaries they may have established to manage being a carer alongside a full-time student completely disintegrated. Where the move to digital learning may offer a good level of flexibility for students with caring responsibilities, it also draws light on a kind of spatial disadvantage; not everyone has the space and the privacy they need to fully focus on their studies.

Students need more than just support from universities

Reflecting over the past few months, I think we have responded well in supporting KU Cares students, but this period has emphasised how much they are impacted by policies and issues outside of the HE sphere. It can be quite depressing when the issues that impact my students most, are the ones I don’t have the power to change.

I can’t change the postcode lottery of local authority support for care leavers, and I can’t make this support as accessible as it should be. I can’t stop unpaid carers stepping in to plug the colossal gaps in social care provision. I can’t wave a magic wand over the housing sector, or overhaul student funding. But what I can do is to advocate for students on an individual level and highlight some of the collective issues they are facing to other practitioners.

As a sector we can’t directly change some of the wider systemic inequalities that impact our students’ lives, but we do have the power to lobby and to hold the government to account. We are an incredibly diverse and passionate sector and can use our collective platform to amplify the voices of the students whose lives we are supporting to transform.

Beth Taswell is Access and Support Advisor (KU Cares) at Kingston University

Image credit: Tim Marshall

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