The PIE sent out a series of freedom of information requests to universities asking for data around the number of applications made by international students for hardship funds and the number of applications that were consequently rejected.
“The fact that over a quarter of international students who are seeking hardship funds are rejected suggests that there is a problem with the process”
Some 66 universities supplied figures by the time of publication. The data they provided showed that there were more than 13,800 applications made by international students between March 2020 and January 2021.
Across all the universities, there was an average rejection rate of 26%. Two universities said that international students had no access to hardship funds at all.
“The fact that over a quarter of international students who are seeking hardship funds are rejected suggests that there is a problem with the process, whether this be insufficient support available or more of a procedural issue,” Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute, told The PIE.
“It seems that both universities and students would benefit from clear guidance about the eligibility criteria for hardship funds and universities must be mindful about whether the support provided is sufficient,” she added.
The most common reasons for rejection cited by universities were that students had been unable to provide satisfactory evidence to support their applications (or that applications were incomplete), and that students had sufficient funds or no evidence of hardship.
Several universities also noted that some students had tried to use the fund to address long-term and non-Covid-related financial issues. Five universities said one of the top reasons for rejecting applications was that students wished to use the money to pay tuition fees.
Others rejected applications on the grounds that students required long term support or support for costs that should have come within the normal scope of expected expenses such as transport costs and childcare.
“Students may be unsure what this support will cover or how to apply”
“Universities in the UK have been working hard throughout the pandemic to make sure that students facing hardship are supported, including ensuring that support available is clearly communicated,” explained Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International.
“This is of particular importance for international students who may be less familiar than other student groups with the type of university support on offer. Specifically, students may be unsure what this support will cover or how to apply.”
Stern said that UUKi addressed this directly in its guidance for universities on student financial hardship, in which the organisation encouraged members to review the information available about hardship funds to “ensure the information is up to date and that different forms of support are clearly signposted, alongside eligibility criteria”.
“We have also encouraged universities to be clear that there are limits to hardship support that universities can provide and that other options may need to be explored where students are not eligible, such as tuition fee payment plans,” she added.
Anne Marie Graham, chief executive of UKCISA, told The PIE that her organisation is part of UUKi’s Task Group on hardship.
“We had flagged to this group, and it is referenced in the guidance they produced for institutions, that it is important to remember that students often have funds in their account that are ring-fenced for tuition or accommodation, so they may still experience hardship,” she said.
During Covid-19 international students faced serious hardship, including a lack of food, accommodation and medical supplies.
“One food bank in East London, the Newham Community Project, told The PIE in February 2021 that it was spending £3,000-4,000 a week on food”
In May 2020 Indian students, stranded in the UK, were made homeless after job losses meant they could not pay rent to private landlords.
Despite hardship funds being made available by universities in the second UK lock down, charities revealed that students were using food banks across the country.
One food bank in East London, the Newham Community Project, told The PIE in February 2021 that it was spending £3,000-4,000 a week on food and feeding over 1,000 international students.
In February 2021, the UK government announced an additional £50m in hardship funding to support university students, including international students, impacted by Covid-19.
“This continues to be an incredibly difficult and challenging time for our students, and I am hugely grateful to all the university staff working hard to prioritise their health, wellbeing and learning during this pandemic,” said universities minister Michelle Donelan at the time of the announcement.
The PIE asked the Department of Education to comment on the data revealed by the FOIs but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.
Additional reporting by Callan Quinn