02:02, September 09 91 0 theguardian.com

2020-09-09 02:02:03
Towns and gowns  'Covid is a social crisis': the university staff and students filling welfare gaps

As far as work experience goes, Pryanka Shergill’s CV punches above the rest: a second-year law student, she recently trained as a legal companion and already has a handful of cases under her belt. “It’s been an emotional journey,” she says.

Shergill is one of several undergraduate students to volunteer their time with a pioneering programme launched by Keele University law school in response to government legal aid cuts in 2012. Clock (Community Legal Outreach Collaboration Keele) provides free legal admin assistance to marginalised and vulnerable members of Stoke-on-Trent, which is one of the most socially deprived areas of the country (more than 60% of adults have a reading age of 11 years or under).

At the beginning of this year, Clock’s services were already in high demand. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, forcing courts to close and physical meetings between clients and legal companions to come to an abrupt halt. As a consequence of lockdown, demand for legal support has increased by 25%, says Jane Krishnadas, director of legal outreach at Keele and convener of Clock. “That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” she says. “People see Covid as a health crisis, but it’s also a social crisis in terms of the increasing personal debt, mental health problems and domestic and sexual violence taking place.”

Shergill fears for the safety of her clients even more. “Many people can’t access the internet during lockdown, which makes it harder for especially vulnerable individuals,” she says.

Like many university outreach programmes, Clock was set up to plug a gap in state welfare. “The situation was already so desperate, but now because of Covid it’s reached a whole new level,” says Krishnadas. But she adds: “It shouldn’t become a default for the government to say, ‘Oh well, we don’t need to do this, because [Keele] is stepping in.’ The sad thing is that if we weren’t here, then people would just be struggling silently and and worse.”

Many universities are facing similar, unexpected pressures. Since the start of lockdown, Glasgow Caledonian University’s [GCU] social outreach programme, the Caledonian Club, has extended its support to vulnerable members of the community. But five existing food banks funded by the club have reported that the number of families requiring the service has doubled since the start of lockdown, and coordinators worry their outreach can only extend so far.

Anne O’Grady, a retired nursery school headteacher in Glasgow, has been involved with the club for around 20 years, and describes its positive effecton the local community as “incredible”. But she fears the economic impact of the pandemic could undo some of this good work.

“People are pulling together from the GCU community to plug the gaps, and that keeps some of these vulnerable people quite buoyant who would otherwise have been very isolated,” she says. “There’s an increased awareness within the community about how vulnerable people are now, which is positive. But the thought of the plug being pulled on that funding would be quite catastrophic, and I don’t use that word lightly.”

Imperial College London has also found new opportunities to form connections with the local community in White City over lockdown. What the Tech, a drop-in service run by the university to help older residents with their electronic gadgets, now provides wider support for vulnerable residents.

“There’s been a lot of need for support getting people familiar with Zoom, or on the government website to access forms,” says community engagement manager Priya Pallan. “Some residents want no tech support, just the phone call which is also fine. We’ve found a few who weren’t getting food packages or couldn’t pick up their prescriptions, or they couldn’t understand the news and the changing government policy. So we’ve put a safeguarding system in place to connect them to the partners in the community that could meet their needs.”

A second project set up directly in response to lockdown provides children from recognised vulnerable families with “science backpacks” full of learning materials and activities that don’t rely on access to the internet. “Creating them has given us an opportunity to connect with parts of the community that even we haven’t been able to reach before,” says Maggie Dallman, associate provost for academic partnerships.

Imperial has long-term philanthropic donations that keep such outreach projects going, but Dallman says she still loses sleep over the prospect of that funding ending. While some donors have given reassurances of increased support during the pandemic, others have had to curb their donations due to their own financial pressures, she explains.

This type of community work is threatened by the fact that universities also face unprecedented economic challenges. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that UK institutions could lose as much as a quarter of their total income this year. While more recent projections have indicated lesser losses thanks to higher than expected student demand, budgets will still have to be tightened due to the uncertainty.

Dallmanbelieves that regardless of the financial challenges, it is universities’ duty to work with their local communities, especially during times like these. “It’s our responsibility not to be in an ivory tower – connecting with the public should be the fourth pillar of what we do,” she says. “We are also largely funded by the government, so they do indirectly support us and that should go back to helping the community.”

At the same time, greater financial support for universitieswould allow outreach programmes to be better protected. “We have had a long period of underfunding in research, which has a knock-on effect on teaching, outreach and so on – so a bit of what is funded at the moment by charities, perhaps the government might like to support further,” she says. “Ultimately the finances are going to be a big part of determining what can and can’t be done. We’ve shown that universities can do incredible things in the local community and that should continue and expand.”