Last month, the NUS Poverty Commission published the Class dismissed: Getting in and getting on in further and higher education report, looking at the barriers facing working class students in regards to access and success in post-16 education. The Commission was established to address how the switch from maintenance grants to loans in England has disproportionately impacted the lives of poorer students. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that these students will leave university with an average debt of £57,000 — and that is if they complete their degree. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to drop out of university, with 8.8% doing so in 2014/15 academic year.
The NUS report identifies how funding essentials like accommodation, travel, and course materials can place financial strain on students and that worryingly, a significant proportion have also been in a position where they could not afford food or heating. A recent Guardian opinion piece highlights how more students are turning to emergency food services, and a number of UK universities now run student food banks.
In Manchester, Emmeline's Pantry is reaching out to local universities to offer practical and emotional support to female students. Based in the cellars of Manchester's Pankhurst Centre — the birthplace of the Suffragette movement — this is a food bank with a difference. The initiative began over five years ago in a cupboard in a hallway, and it run by women, for women. As the charity's Service Coordinator, Karen, explains: "We provide access to everything a vulnerable woman and her family might need in order to regain self-worth and independence to live and flourish in life."
Out of necessity, Emmeline's Pantry have expanded their service to support women through the provision of fresh and halal food, long-life food, toiletries, baby items, sanitary products and clothes. There is also an emphasis on helping women to regain self-worth and make choices for themselves. For this reason, items are never pre-bagged; instead, the service is laid out like a shop, where women pick up a basket and choose what they want from the shelves.
The charity also offers a safe space for women which Karen observes is "absolutely paramount, given the severity of some of the situations our women have escaped from. The majority of women who access our service have been affected by gender-based violence and abuse." There is evidence to show that women-only spaces offer women a chance to be “safe from harassment, abuse and misogyny, [where] they feel safe to be cognitively, intellectually and emotionally expressive,” and research also demonstrates that 86% of the burden of austerity since 2010 has fallen on women.
Many of the women who access Emmeline's Pantry do so because of benefit sanctions and cuts, while others are impacted by zero-hour contracts or a cut in child tax credits. Karen also describes how some of these women have escaped "the most unthinkable circumstances." By providing a space, specifically for women that is free from stigma and shame, the charity aims to lessen the burden that many women face and allow them to regain self-respect and dignity.
"Emmeline’s Pantry believes in choice – it is a fundamental human right to have choice. A high volume of our service users are referred from circumstances where choice has been taken away from them." (Karen, Service Coordinator, Emmeline's Pantry)
Recognising that some students are facing poverty as a barrier to success in their academic endeavors, and the fact that domestic violence is most common among young women aged 18-24 (a demographic that the majority of students fall into), Karen is keen to connect with universities in the area. Anyone wishing to access the service offered by Emmeline's Pantry must referred through a registered organisation. Therefore those who work with vulnerable women in a university context can get in touch with the charity to learn about their criteria for access and how to sign up so that they can begin signposting this support to students.
The ongoing success of Emmeline's Pantry is a result of the hard work and dedication of their volunteers, the majority of whom have been involved since the start. The charity is therefore also looking for students who would like to volunteer with them, committing to at least four hours per week on a regular day. Contact details are below for those interested in finding out more — the next volunteer induction day is at 10.30am on May 29th.
Notes: Embedded throughout the ProtectED Code of Practice is the requirement for universities to work with local organisations, charities and police to help enhance student safety and wellbeing.