Supporting students through the cost-of-living crisis

Posted by Beth Anderson

A FE Week article has revealed that of 18 colleges surveyed by the National Association for Managers of Student Services, all 18 had seen a rise in demand for their student support services, with over half seeing an increase in demand by over 20%. 

With little action taken from the Spring Budget 2023 for FE learning, colleges will have to find ways to support their students whilst dealing with their own rising utility costs and staff retention issues. 

Student dropout rates are increasing, with students blaming the decision to quit on money worries or having to support their families with childcare whilst parents work more hours to counteract higher utility costs. 

Principal of Hartlepool College of Further Education, Darren Hankey, raised concerns to FE Week that the rising dropout rates were a ‘waste of talent’ and a ‘practice solely taken up by those from poorer backgrounds.’ He continued: ‘The current circumstances have deprived the economy of someone who has had the opportunity to make a greater impact.’  

Whilst the government pushes for local skills shortages to be filled with budding apprentices, it seems unlikely that this plan will succeed, with so many learners leaving courses to survive the cost-of-living crisis. 

But it’s not just increased dropout rates that colleges are witnessing; it’s soaring demand for support – whether mental health or financial, more bursaries for struggling families and the need to fill the food gap for those below the threshold for free meals. 

Attendance is another battle for colleges. Those who make it to class take advantage of the extended opening hours and warm, heated spaces, but whilst this supports the students, it contributes further to the stress on colleges’ finances as utility costs creep up. 

According to government data, over one million learners in FE are 19+. This means that students may be more likely to have dependants at home, making, in some cases, studying a second priority – with the added stress of keeping up with utility and food costs, students with dependants are at high risk of dropping out. 

What can you do to mitigate the challenges to your learners and give yourself more chance to adapt in a sustainable way? 

Ensure you’re tracking learners’ progress and looking for early drop-off signs – are they completing work on time? Are their knowledge and understanding improving? Will they achieve a positive, timely completion of their programme? 

Whilst it’s not as simple as just ‘fix it’, with the ability to track and analyse data, problems should be spotted before they become extreme – such as students dropping out. Consider how you can intervene earlier, with less expense on staff and learners. Think about the time it takes to access funding help, if you’re able to identify the need before it hits desperation and apply early, you and your learners will be in a much better position to deal with the problems. 

Understanding how to guide students through mental health and well-being issues is another crucial factor to consider – how are you currently identifying those with extra needs?  

Have you noticed more learners logging in uncharacteristically late at night to get work done after working all day? Are students raising safeguarding concerns in the early hours of the morning? All these questions can help you identify those needing further help. 

Providing opportunities for learners to build communities and increase social contact virtually could be one way to boost student engagement. In a post-pandemic environment, the need to be on campus to learn is long gone and social connectivity, whilst still challenging, is essential. Feedback and support can be offered virtually to both staff and learners, but finding the safest, most efficient way to do this should be a priority. 

Whilst generic social media networks are popular, they bring safeguarding risks such as cyberbullying or more malicious interactions. Creating an environment that is safe, informative, and easily accessible, such as using mobile apps like Engage is one way to help combat the problems of loneliness, isolation and provide a safe way to reach out for help. 

Consider how you can cut costs for learners – and colleges, but providing extended access online for learners, saving them travel fares and saving you utility and staffing costs. Providing feedback through your student information system or apprenticeship management solution can encourage students to reach out virtually for help and ask questions, rather than struggle at home with the added stress of finding money to visit campus. With the added app support mentioned above, your learners and staff can grow their own networks of support, whilst still be monitored for warning signs that may require intervention. 

Beth Anderson is a Business Marketing Partner in the Tribal Group Further Education and Vocational Learning team. Tribal has worked extensively with colleges around the UK using it's ebs and Maytas solutions to help support students through complex modern learning requirements. Our mobile app Engage helps to improve student peer-to-peer connectivity and encourages self-learning. 

To understand how Tribal’s solutions can help you to support your staff and learners through the cost-of-living crisis, get in touch. 


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