Professor Elizabeth McCrum, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education & Student Experience at the University of Reading, shares her personal experiences that have driven her passion to support Reading’s students through their financial challenges.
Professor McCrum talks about her own university journey and going on to have a successful career as a secondary school history teacher, before moving into academia. She is aware of how much she owes to those who supported her to complete her studies, and why it’s so crucial to support our students in today’s climate.
She said: “I started the role of Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Reading in January, and it’s fair to say we’ve faced very different challenges in relation to the student experience than we could ever have expected, due to the pandemic.
“My focus has been on maintaining the student experience in the face of external challenges. I’m motivated by wanting to give the highest possible standard of experience to our students.
“Without students, there wouldn’t be a university at all. It’s incredibly rewarding working with these interesting, diverse and incredible students all day, but they need our support now to ensure they can stay on at Reading and complete their studies despite the challenges created by the pandemic.”
Professor McCrum reflected upon her own journey through higher education, and the increased financial strain current students are under.
She said: “Financial hardship for students has been really noticeable throughout the pandemic, because many either rely heavily on support from families – who are now unable to provide that support – or rely on part-time work, which is now non-existent.
“I know how badly these financial worries are dominating students’ lives and affecting their studies.
‘’Like many students from my generation, I had to work for several years before university and during every holiday to be able to afford my education. If I had to go a summer without working, as our students have just done, I would be in the same position as them now – in danger of having to drop out of university.
“I worked every part-time job going, from shops to factories. Despite working hard, I still found myself in situations at times where I had to rely on similar hardship funds to this one.
“I received small amounts of money when I couldn’t quite make ends meet; it only takes a small thing to make a big difference in a time of crisis for students.
“The people who supported me throughout my education didn’t just help me and my family, they also helped the people in the communities I went on to work in – as a teacher – and that was only possible because they helped me to complete my studies.”
Our students today are facing similar challenges, but made so much worse by the pandemic.
She said: “I only managed to complete university due to the availability of part-time work. This was my situation when there wasn’t a global pandemic to contend with as well.
“I’m particularly worried about the students who come from low-income families, students who are estranged from their families, or are care leavers, who have no one to turn to. These are the students most likely to face hardship. For them, the financial crisis brought on by COVID-19 is even more acute.
“My fear is that once a student drops out, they’ll never come back – it’s harder to return once you’ve left.”
Professor McCrum is also aware of the other serious issues that can be brought about by, or exacerbated by, financial hardship.
She said: “We have to remember that financial worries create a lot of stress, which can impact on a student’s wellbeing and mental health.
“Financial hardship creates uncertainty: students don’t know what’s going to happen in their future, such as whether they’ll be able to continue with their studies or not. This all adds up to a lot of worry resting on young shoulders, some of whom have only just left home for the first time.
“Financial strain, wellbeing and mental health difficulties all in turn impact a student’s education. They may suffer concentration and engagement issues because of the other pressures on them. Hopefully if we can support them to remove some of this pressure, they will be able to do justice to their academic potential and thrive in themselves.”
Professor McCrum takes a moment to recognise just how grateful and proud the University is of those who are stepping up to support our students through this crisis.
She said: “It’s important for donors to know how much we appreciate their support. We’re so thankful as a university, and every student who has benefitted from these generous donations is grateful too.
“Our supporters are making a huge difference to our students – in many cases, donors are changing the course of our students’ lives by enabling them to stay at Reading. We’re proud of what our former students are doing to help our current students.
“But, every day requests continue to come in from students who are unable to afford essentials. There are still more students who need support to weather this storm. Please, if you can, join me in supporting this appeal.”
The Student Support Fund provides emergency grants to students in unexpected financial crisis; when they have run out of other options and dropping out of university is a very real possibility.