University staff and students have been warned they face a grim return to studies this autumn.

Institutions are battling a major financial crisis as Covid-19 stops thousands of high-fee-paying international students enrolling for the new term.

But staff and student representatives believe their members will have their own money and other problems as the academic year begins.

There are concerns that universities may cut funding for pastoral support – such as  student associations or chaplaincies, or counselling services for people with mental health or other personal issues, including those who have survived sexual assault.

Worries about cutbacks come as the market for traditional student jobs in hospitality has been hit disproportionately hard by the current crisis.

Mary Senior, of the University and College Union, explained: “The lockdown has been an incredibly unsettling and debilitating time for everyone, and has presented unique challenges to universities, their students and staff. 

“The sector has been supporting students experiencing digital exclusion and unable to learn remotely, students facing increased levels of poverty or loss of their part-time incomes – given the disappearance of jobs in retail and hospitality – as well as coping with the mental health anxieties of the pandemic.”

Read more: MPs to probe universities funding after Covid crash

Senior added that teachers and other staff were also suffering. She said: “The intensification of workloads – which were already excessive for many staff – has been simply overwhelming, as learning and teaching shifted online overnight, together with a total blurring of the lines between work and home life. 

“University staff are now planning for a range of blended and distanced learning scenarios for the new term, given the ongoing uncertainties of this virus.  On top of this, job security is adding to the stress, with so many university staff on hourly paid or fixed-term contracts and no guarantees they will have work in the new academic year, and the threat of cuts hanging over all too many workers in the sector.”

Student leaders share such concerns. 

The new president of the National Union of Students in Scotland, Matt Crilly, welcomed some Scottish Government support for hardship funds for students and efforts to address digital poverty.

But he added: “NUS Scotland’s priority over the next year will be addressing student poverty. In the short-term we need to see the Scottish Government make emergency funding available as needed. In the longer term, we need to see politicians commit to making significant improvements to the cost of living support on offer to learners.

 “Students entering the job market this year are going to be confronted with a contracted job market and reduced opportunities through no fault of their own. NUS Scotland is calling for grant support for education leavers, so that they can develop their skills when trying to find work. 

“We remain supportive of calls for a Universal Basic Income, and continue to call on the Scottish and UK Governments to work together to develop such a scheme.”

Covid has revealed just how much Scottish universities depend on international students to make up for a shortfall in government funding. 

Crilly said: “The enormous financial impact facing Scottish universities underscores just how reliant they have become on fee-paying students. In the long-term we need a system that is built on sustainable public investment, not on student debt.’

The NUS president also cautioned against seeing foreign students as cash cows. 

He said: “International students pay eye-watering costs for their courses and accommodation, on top of visa costs, charges for healthcare and more. NUS Scotland has long argued that these costs must be addressed.

“Viewing international students narrowly as a ‘lucrative’ income stream for our institutions is shameful. 

“They are part of the fabric of our communities and positively contribute immeasurably to our society. 

“Government, institutions and society must ensure that Scotland is a welcoming and inviting place to study and live, so that vital contribution is not lost.”

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