Debt advice can be life-changing, but advisers can’t work miracles

By Sharon Collard and Jamie Evans

Two years on from the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, at least 8.5 million people in the UK need debt advice from a regulated provider, fuelled by a cost of living crisis that is stretching the finances of millions of UK households to breaking point. Even so, our research suggests that only a minority of people who would benefit from debt advice will actually seek it – a conundrum that has exercised the debt advice sector, creditors, regulators and governments for decades. Where people do seek debt advice, the evidence shows that only a minority get all the information or help they feel they need.

The Coronavirus Financial Impact Tracker was commissioned by abrdn Financial Fairness Trust in March 2020 to capture the financial impact of pandemic on UK households through a series of periodic cross-sectional online surveys conducted by YouGov and analysed by the University of Bristol’s Personal Finance Research Centre. Five surveys were conducted over the course of the pandemic, the last one in October 2021.

One of the things the surveys ask about is whether people sought debt advice from any free-to-use debt advice providers (such as Citizens Advice, National Debtline, StepChange Debt Charity) or fee-charging companies. Looking at the survey findings from October 2021, we see that only 5% of UK households said they had received any spoken advice about their financial situation since the start of the pandemic; 7% had received online advice (e.g. via by WhatsApp or webchat); and 4% had received both spoken and online advice (Table 1).

Not surprisingly, households in worse financial situations were more likely to have received advice over that period – 17% of households classed as ‘in serious financial difficulty’ had received spoken advice; 26% had received online advice and 13% had received both spoken and online advice (Table 1). That still means most households ‘in serious financial difficulty’ did not get any information or help about their financial situation from a debt advice provider, even though 93% of them said thinking about their financial situation made them anxious, 85% were struggling to pay for food and/or bills, and 55% were in arrears on at least one bill/credit commitment.

It could be that government financial support and payment deferrals from lenders helped many of these households weather the financial impact of the pandemic, but such assistance is unlikely to have resolved underlying debt problems. They may also have relied on self-help and obtained the information they needed from other sources that we did not ask about in the survey.

Table 1

We also asked advice-seekers whether they received all the information or help they needed from the debt advice provider they contacted. Almost half (46%) of all advice-seekers said they only received some of the information or help they needed; and a further 14% said they received none. This picture was amplified among advice-seekers who were ‘in serious financial difficulty’, where only a quarter (25%) said they received all the information or help they needed (Table 2).

Table 2

These findings raise some fundamental questions about why people aren’t seeking help who seem to need it; but also why most advice seekers are not getting all the information or help they feel they need – particularly those ‘in serious financial difficulty’.

Despite all the positive help that debt advice agencies provide, there are limits to what can be achieved for people in serious difficulties who have little or no spare income to pay back what they owe and for whom bankruptcy or debt relief fees may be prohibitive. In some cases, debt advisers may be able to do no more than confirm there is no real tangible help available or any recourse to additional financial support. This points to the need for wider reforms outside the debt advice sector such as adequate state safety nets, real living wages and better access to debt relief.

In addition, advice-seekers may need other services such as welfare benefits advice or legal help with their debts that debt advice services can’t offer. It could also be the case that people have expectations of debt advice services that exceed the reality of what these services can offer. Addressing these questions is important to ensure that debt advice reaches more people who need it and delivers good outcomes for the people who use it.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on undergraduate student accommodation

By Katie Cross

Since 2014, we have surveyed undergraduate students at the University of Bristol to help us understand the impact that finances have on the experience of studying at the University. Our latest survey, conducted in May 2021[1], allowed us to ask students about their financial experiences of the 2020-21 academic year, more than a full year after Covid-19 first hit. As part of our survey this year, we incorporated several questions specifically on student accommodation, namely where respondents were living at the time of the survey, whether they had lived anywhere else during term-time, whether they had an adequate provision of study whilst at alternative accommodation and what impact Covid-19 had on their accommodation costs. We also allowed students to comment qualitatively about their accommodation experience.

Over the summer of 2020, Covid-19 restrictions were gradually eased: we emerged from the first national lockdown at the end of June with pubs, hairdressers and restaurants reopening in July, and in August, the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was introduced, to encourage us further back into pubs and restaurants[2]. In May 2020[3], the University of Bristol announced that it would be open to students from the start of the 2020-21 academic year, offering a blended approach of campus and online education; large-scale lectures would be moved online but face-to-face small group teaching and mentoring would go ahead.

With that in mind, many students moved to Bristol for the start of the academic year, either for the first time or as returning undergraduates. However, further restrictions on the number of people allowed to mix indoors, along with the national lockdowns in November 2020 and January 2021 meant that much of the 2020-21 academic year was again heavily disrupted for students. Although urged to stay in Bristol until the end of Autumn Term, many students went home before the lockdown restrictions came into force in November. Others locked down at University and waited until the Christmas break to travel home. After Christmas all students were advised not to return for their second term, and the Government announced that in-person teaching would not resume again until the 17th May 2021 at the earliest[4].

Many were frustrated that they were required to pay for University accommodation that they weren’t  living in and even prior to the November national lockdown some students were frustrated by having to self-isolate within halls[5]. Controversy had arisen over the quality of foodboxes provided to students required to self-isolate[6], although some were pleased with what they had received[7]. Many students were also angry at how little face-to-face teaching they were receiving and by the 24th October 2020, over 1,000 Bristol students had signed up to the University of Bristol Rent Strike campaign[8]. The students were calling for rent reductions, no-penalty contract releases and better conditions for those living in halls during lockdown (Figure 1). While some concessions and rebates were won, by May 2021 students and the University of Bristol were still in dispute[9][10][11].

Figure 1: Rent strike Bristol demands

This turbulent year for students has had a real impact on student mental health, which we will explore in a separate blog. Here, we focus specifically on the student experience in relation to their accommodation; patterns of movement and how students felt about living arrangements during 2020-21.

Movement of students

When we ran our survey in May 2021 over three quarters (77%) of first year students were living in halls, 10% were renting privately and 12% were living at home with parents. Second and third year students on the other hand were much more likely to be renting privately (86%), with only 5% in halls and 7% living with parents. The percentage of students in all years living with parents was higher in May 2021 than it had been pre-Covid (Table 1) from our previous annual survey two years before, although still only a minority of students were living at home.

Table 1: Student accommodation type by year group – 2019 vs 2021 (annual survey comparison)

Around half of students reported living in different accommodation at some point during term-time

We asked students whether they had lived anywhere else that academic year during term-time (other than where they were living in May 2021 – when the survey was taken). For instance, this could refer to students who lived in halls before Christmas but were at their parent’s home by May 2021, or those who were living in halls in May but who had moved home to live with parents earlier in the year, e.g. during lockdowns, and then back again to Bristol.

Given the lack of in-person teaching and restrictions, it is perhaps surprising that fewer than half of students overall (48%) reported living in different accommodation at some point that academic year. First year students were significantly less likely (44%) than second and third years (51%) to report moving accommodation during term-time. This is again unexpected, given that first year students were more likely than their second and third year peers to live in University-owned halls, and therefore to be offered some form of rebate (as seen below in Table 2). In contrast, those living in private accommodation were required to negotiate with a range of private landlords for any such rebate. It may be that remaining on campus was more important to first year students, trying to settle in, than those with a year or more to embed themselves in the University student community.

The impact on study provision

Around half of students who moved (47%) reported having inadequate provision for study at their alternative accommodation, with a lack of adequate space (36%) and of adequate broadband connection (26%) being notable issues. Qualitatively, some students reported difficult living conditions at home as a reason for returning to campus despite the lockdown, amid concerns over the potential impact on their academic performance.

  • “I live in a basement flat and my room is very small with no natural light. It is depressing and I have nowhere else to work, so my motivation to complete my degree has plummeted. As a third year, I really feel that this has therefore had a substantial impact on my grades. Without a comfortable or acceptable working space it has been a nightmare to concentrate” – Year three female

Many students paid for unused accommodation  

Despite the University offering rebates[13], these were only for those living in halls, so primarily first year students. Unite owned halls also offered rebates to students[14]. However, according to our survey, very few (4%) second and third-year students were offered a refund for their accommodation (Table 2), as they were much more likely to be renting privately (Table 1). Many second- and third-year students reported spending little time, if any, within their Bristol accommodation but still having to pay their rent there in full.

  • “I have had to pay for a flat that has gone entirely unused while also paying money to live at home with my parents” – Year three, male

Our research indicated that only around a quarter of students (26%) received some form of refund, while a similar proportion paid for University accommodation in full despite not living there at certain periods (25%)[15].  As mentioned, this varied greatly by year group with nearly half of first year students (49%) receiving some form of refund, compared to only 4% of second and third year students (Table 2). Separate research conducted nationwide by Save the Student, estimated that students spent £1bn in a year on empty accommodation and that the average student spent £1,621 in rent for unrefunded rooms[16].

Table 2: The impact of Covid-19 on accommodation costs (2020-21 academic year)

Uncertainty over level of in-person teaching

Importantly, students may have made different accommodation choices if they had been prewarned clearly how little face-to-face tuition they would receive, difficult though that would have been for the University. Instead, under uncertainty they could respond very differently, as these two responses show.

  • “The university told me that it was highly advisable to live in Bristol if possible. So, I’ve ended up paying 12 months rent for flat that I’ve lived in for 3 months” – Year two male
  • “Because my course was online for term 2, I was able to go home, save the rent money that can be used for my summer rent at the 2nd year house” – Year one, female student

Lockdown living

Some of those who remained in student accommodation during term-time found it very isolating, and this could have impacted on their mental health. This was particularly true for first year students, who had not yet had the opportunity to build support and friendship networks.

  • “I lived on my own for 4 months with no flatmates, in a national lock down. It was not the best experience” – year one female
  • “Not been able to meet people outside of my flat really. Very isolating and limited” – year one, female
  • “Living in a house of 9 people was very uncomfortable when COVID-19 was extremely prevalent. Due to COVID-19 infections our house had to quarantine for about 3-4 weeks. After being locked in a house with no garden and really poor facilities I travelled home because it was mentally no longer feasible to remain in Bristol” – year two male

Others noted that some of the key social facilities normally offered as part of their accommodation had been closed e.g., common rooms or study rooms, and so felt they had paid for something they didn’t have access to. Some also found that the maintenance of the accommodation was poor, as a result of the Covid rules.

  • “It resulted in us paying for facilities (gym; music rooms; common rooms; hall bar; study rooms) that we were promised but have never had access to” – year one, female

Greater financial and emotional support needed for students

Overall, many students understandably expressed their disappointment with their accommodation experience over the past year. It has clearly been difficult for students academically, socially and in terms of mental wellbeing, and it is important that the University listens to and learns from their experiences. Whilst it would have been impossible for any university to know ahead of time precisely how its 2020-21 academic year would play out, there needs to be greater recognition that much of the adversity was borne by students, particularly first years with no prior familiarity with the University or their fellow students, who might reasonably have been expecting a greater duty of care to be shown to them. The pandemic was obviously very unsettling for academic, administrative and support staff as well, but not only did almost all have previous experience of working under lockdown conditions from 2019-20 but also had local homes to work from and supportive local communities, so were not faced with a parallel set of decisions and realities over the upheaval to their Bristol-based accommodation.

With hindsight, greater financial hardship support could have been offered to students who were struggling to pay for their rent; those who couldn’t work as they expected (either in term-time or the holidays) or whose family income had dropped because of the pandemic, for example. And while lockdowns were not within the control of the University, how it  communicated with students about these changes was. Some students were left feeling that the University was more concerned with its own finances than with the health and well-being of its students, especially when, in May, 2021, it turned to third party debt collectors in response to the rent strike.

It was a very difficult year for both staff and students at the University, and greater mutual empathy and understanding could have gone a long way in supporting each other in a crisis.


[1] Fieldwork was conducted between 27th April and 1st June 2021.

[2] https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/timeline-lockdown-web.pdf

[3] https://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2020/may/covid-update-academic-year.html

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-56731330

[5] On the 9th October the University shut “The Courtrooms” residence (which had over 300 students) because 40 students had Covid.

[6] https://epigram.org.uk/2020/10/20/bristol-uni-rent-strike-on-course-to-be-the-biggest-in-uk-history-after-1000-signups/

[7] https://thetab.com/uk/bristol/2020/10/09/uob-freshers-are-being-given-incredibly-posh-food-boxes-full-of-soy-sauce-and-propercorn-42271

[8] https://twitter.com/rentstrikebris

[9] https://www.bristol.ac.uk/accommodation/coronavirus/20-21/rent-rebate/

[10] https://tribunemag.co.uk/2021/01/britains-historic-wave-of-student-rent-strikes

[11] https://epigram.org.uk/2021/05/08/rent-strikers-face-third-party-debt-collection-from-bristol-university/

[12] Questions on student accommodation are asked annually as part of the student survey. March 2019 is the latest survey available prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. The 2020 survey was asked slightly later in the year (May as opposed to March) and so embraced the first lockdown of universities under Covid-19, in late March 2020

[13] https://www.bristol.ac.uk/accommodation/coronavirus/20-21/rent-rebate/

[14] https://epigram.org.uk/2021/03/06/unite-students-announces-a-further-rent-reduction-for-march-2021/

[15] Not all students living in halls would have automatically received a refund. The first two rebates given by the University were automatically provided but students were required to apply for the third rebate by a specified deadline.

[16] https://www.savethestudent.org/accommodation/national-student-accommodation-survey-2021.html

Open Banking for Good – making a difference during the pandemic

By Sharon Collard and Jamie Evans

Nationwide Building Society’s Open Banking for Good (OB4G) – an initiative to use Open Banking technology to help ‘financially squeezed‘ people – ran from 2018 to early 2020. With around 4 million UK households currently struggling to manage financially, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the value of these propositions as well as presenting opportunities and challenges for the fintech Challengers in terms of their ability to grow and scale.

Open Banking for Good (OB4G) was launched by Nationwide Building Society in 2018 and ran throughout 2019 into early 2020. It brought together user experts (charity partners), solution experts (fintech Challengers) and process experts (Nationwide’s OB4G team) to solve real-life financial challenges for people who are ‘financially squeezed’.

Our newly-published evaluation of the impact of the OB4G programme shows that it largely met the expectations of the five fintech Challengers that completed it, by creating time and space for innovation though collaborative learning with user experts. As a result, all five Challengers successfully developed and tested propositions that tackle real problems which were grounded in the experience of people who are ‘financially squeezed’.

The COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020, just as the OB4G programme was wrapping up. The economic and social impact of the pandemic has fallen especially heavily on OB4G’s target audience with an estimated 4 million people currently struggling to manage. While the pandemic brought home the potential value of the propositions that were developed in the OB4G programme, it also impacted the OB4G Challengers in a range of different ways:

  • Income smoothing challenge: Trezeo brought forward the development of its sickness insurance for independent workers and gave existing members complementary cover from early March to the end of June 2020. The pandemic also meant it had to delay its next funding round and put on hold its partnership with an online employment platform.
  • Income and expenditure challenge: Both Ducit.ai and OpenWrks saw increased demand for their Income & Expenditure propositions as the pandemic led to large-scale drops in earnings and people turned to creditors for forbearance and support. OpenWrks also created a payment relief solution that enabled lenders to offer an automated online channel for customers to apply for mortgage and consumer credit payment deferrals.
  • Money management & help challenge: The first national lockdown in March 2020 – when 2.5 million people were advised to stay at home or ‘shield’ – highlighted the value of Touco’s ideas for using tech to provide a safe way for individuals to give money to a helper to spend on their behalf. The pandemic also created significant challenges for Touco’s planned user testing of the new version of its app. The major changes to people’s spending patterns also had implications for how people interacted with Tully’s Money Coaching app, and in particular the spending challenges they might set.

Nationwide asked us to evaluate the programme so that they could learn and improve the current Nationwide Incubator which is focussed on addressing the challenges of living in financial difficulty. Our evaluation of the OB4G programme is also important as it helps build a new evidence base around the potential of technology and innovation to ‘move the dial’ on big social issues. This knowledge sharing has become even more important in the wake of COVID-19, which brings opportunities to use a Grounded Innovation approach to ‘build back better’ and improve the UK’s financial wellbeing.


Read our report: Open Banking for Good: Making a difference?

“Now is literally the worst time in decades to be entering the work force”: the impact of COVID-19 on university students’ finances

By Katie Cross and Sara Davies

As students return to University campuses, the discussion has largely focused on worries over increased COVID-19 rates. But our survey of University of Bristol students suggests their approaching financial position should also be cause for concern. 

The economic impact of COVID-19 has been both rapid and widespread. By June, the economy was around 17% smaller than it had been in February. The sharp increase in Universal Credit claims after lockdown was unprecedented, with almost 2.5 million household claiming between mid-March and late June. And the Office for Budget Responsibility is projecting an unemployment rate of 11.9 per cent in Q4 of 2020. It is a very uncertain time for all.

But one group whose financial position we have heard less about during this time is that of university students. Each year we conduct a survey for the University of Bristol’s Widening Participation team to look at the impact bursaries have on students, comparing the financial experiences of those from low- and middle-income backgrounds who receive financial support from the University, with those from higher-income backgrounds[1], who do not. This year the timing of the survey allowed us to ask students about their financial experiences both pre- and post-COVID, and to look at how they may have fared during the crisis.

Financial impacts so far

As with the wider UK population, COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown has had an unparalleled impact on student employment. Prior to the pandemic half of students surveyed (51 per cent) were employed in some form. Since the outbreak however, over two thirds of those previously working were no longer doing so, with a further 12 per cent working fewer hours than before. Of those no longer working, two thirds said this was due to their employer being closed (either temporarily or permanently). Although the majority of students receiving some form of maintenance loan, earned income is still important to students in order to manage financially, particularly among those who are not in receipt of a bursary, where this loss of income could be worryingly detrimental.

My maintenance loan does not even cover my rent which means I have to borrow money from family and work in order to cover my rent and food.”  – Year two, unfunded

Overall, the impact of coronavirus on the students we spoke to had been fairly evenly split across those finding it easier to manage financially (30 per cent), much the same (40 per cent) and harder to manage (30 per cent).

This means that, for the majority of students, COVID-19 had not had any major negative impact on their financial situation. Indeed, nearly half said they had been able to save money as their costs had generally reduced – a finding which is perhaps unsurprising as lockdown prevented social spending. A third also reported not having to pay for their final term of accommodation, representing a further considerable saving. This does, however, still leave 65 per cent of students paying for at least part, if not all, of their accommodation for the summer term, despite no physical teaching and (for the majority) returning home. Unsurprisingly the majority (95 per cent) of those who weren’t required to pay for their final term of accommodation were first year students (typically living in University owned halls), as opposed to second and third year students who were more likely to rent privately.

“No change at all despite the fact that our bills are included in rent so we are paying more for water, electricity etc that none of us are using (no one living there at the moment). When we contacted to ask for some reduction in rent, we were told that the property is the landlord’s primary source of income (seems an irrelevant argument) so we wouldn’t get any reduction.” – Year two, funded

Overall, 3 in 10 reported their costs and outgoings being harder to manage due to the outbreak. This rises to over half for mature students (who were more likely to have financial dependents) and around two-fifths for those who had lost income from employment.

Support from family

Many students rely on financial support from their families and friends to manage. Indeed, eligibility for bursaries and maintenance loans is based on parental household income from the previous tax year, and there is an expectation that those from higher-income households will receive support from their family. Almost two thirds of Bristol students who were ineligible for bursaries relied on support from family and friends, with 19 per cent having their accommodation paid for and 57 per cent receiving a set amount of money each week or month. Since the outbreak, a small number of (mainly non-bursary) students had received additional support from family or friends. Mature students were also more likely than younger students to have turned to family and friends for financial support since the lockdown, whereas beforehand they were significantly less likely to have done so.

However, the ongoing impact of COVID-19 – particularly once the furlough scheme comes to an end – may have dramatic impacts on family household income, and the worry is that students may fall through a gap, without university funding or family support.

“[I have] concern over lack of employment for my parents, who I rely on financially to pay for my living and accommodation in Bristol, as my maintenance loan was significantly lower than my accommodation cost.” – Year one, unfunded

Prospects

While almost a third of students were currently finding it harder to manage financially, even more were worried about the coming academic year. Half were concerned over their lack of paid employment/income during the holidays or coming year and 41 per cent were worried about how they would manage financially in the Autumn term. Those who usually rely on paid work may run into financial difficulties, particularly if they are unable to return to work or find alternative employment. In our survey, over a third who worked considered employment income ‘very important’ to financially continuing at the University.

It is also important to consider the longer-term financial impact and job prospects for students. The unemployment rate is expected to rise to almost 12 per cent by the end of the year, and those who have recently left education are likely to be disproportionately affected. We are already seeing a reduction in job vacancies and in our survey 69 per cent reported being generally worried about their future, with nearly four in ten third-year students concerned over their post-graduate prospects since COVID-19.

Now is literally the worst time in decades to be entering the work force.” – Year three, funded

Given the general worry about the future, concern over personal and familial health, uncertainty around teaching in the coming year and reduced socialising with friends, it is unsurprising that some students also commented on the negative impacts on their mental health.

“Due to some of my family members being high at risk to corona, I am increasingly anxious as to what is going to happen to them. My mental health has suffered a lot from being very isolated over the Easter term. I am worried that the global economy is about to collapse and the whole world is going to go into recession. So all in all, quite a lot to be stressed about.” – Year one, funded

“My depression has got much worse, my father is at risk, I am struggling to focus at all so I am behind in all of my work and I don’t know how I will cope financially if I cannot work in the summer” – Year two, funded  

Overall, the student community has faced an unprecedented situation with remarkable resilience, but it is apparent that the challenges brought by COVID-19 will impact students for a long time to come. It is crucial that universities understand that, for some students at least, it will be much harder to manage financially than in previous years, and institutions therefore need to provide an appropriate level of practical and pastoral support to help them.

Firstly, we need greater recognition of how important earned income is to students’ financial position and participation at university. Secondly, the increased likelihood of financial difficulty among families of students should be considered, and the impact of this on students – both financially and emotionally – given the role that family support plays in getting by while at university. This suggests that there will be a need for a well-funded and accessible hardship fund in the coming years, because increased financial difficulties may well effect likelihood of withdrawal from studies.

Some students will need more help than others; previous surveys have found that bursaries appear to have some protective effect, therefore attention should also be given to those from higher-income households, particularly those just outside of eligibility, as they are more likely to rely on income from employment. Mature students, who we have previously found struggle financially more than their younger peers, are already turning to their families for support in greater numbers, but what about those who do not have people to turn to?

Finally, the ongoing emotional toil of dealing with a global crisis should not be underestimated. It is worrying enough leaving university in normal times, let alone doing so during a time of recession and increasing unemployment. Giving students as much support and guidance as possible, both to manage during their studies, and to help them to prosper as they leave, is going to be vital over the next few years.


[1] Low income = Residual Household Income (RHI)  > £25k; Mid income = RHI £25-44k; Higher income =RHI £43-80k

Introducing Katie Cross, PFRC’s new Research Associate

Katie Cross

By Katie Cross

When I applied for a job at the University of Bristol’s Personal Finance Research Centre (PFRC) three months ago, I never expected my first week would be spent working from the comfort of my own home. No commute, no struggling to navigate my way around campus and no face-to-face introductions with colleagues. Instead I find myself writing this blog as a way of introducing myself to everyone at the University and to those within the wider research community.

So hello, I am Katie the new Research Associate at the PFRC. My background is in quantitative, policy-focused research, most recently working for the Association of Convenience Stores, a trade association that lobbies government on behalf of small shops. The best thing about working in an applied social research setting is that your research can have a direct impact; the intention is that the findings you produce will be used to inform and drive change. This was just one of the reasons I was drawn to working for the PFRC.

Moving into personal finance and being able to work at the University is an extremely exciting opportunity, which will bring with it a whole host of new experiences. But researching small shops has more in common with personal finance than you might think.

Access to cash

Firstly, during my time at ACS I saw how many people were dependent on the financial services that local shops offer, including post offices, cash machines and bill payment terminals. From a business perspective it is important that offering these services remains viable, as retailers can end up operating them at a loss, replacing ATMs with pay-to-use models or removing them all together. From a personal finance perspective, the removal of these services can be detrimental, especially to the most vulnerable. Almost half of the UK population (47%) believe it would be personally problematic if there was no cash in society and 17% (over 8 million adults) would struggle to cope without it. These figures were reported prior to the coronavirus outbreak, which will only have brought this into the spotlight even further. With hygiene concerns around the use of cash, an increase in the contactless card payment limit and more shops only accepting card, it is now even more important that we do not leave those who rely on cash behind. This makes the work that the PFRC and Dr Daniel Tischer are doing with the Financial Conduct Authority, Payment Systems Regulator and various industry stakeholders on mapping access to cash across the country even more valuable.

Helping people in vulnerable situations

Secondly, helping people in vulnerable situations is a top priority for the PFRC, and the same is often true of local shops. I was always impressed by how much local shops do for their communities, whether this is through delivery services for the elderly, training staff to become dementia friends, or just being there for people who don’t have anyone else to talk to. This has become more apparent during this unprecedented period, with shops going even further to get vulnerable customers the help they need. With Coronavirus pushing many more into vulnerable situations, this is now more important than ever. If the virus has taught us anything, it is that our lives and personal circumstances can change quickly, and sometimes with very little warning.

It is with that in mind that I start my new role.

I am really looking forward to working within the area of personal finance, especially at a time of such great economic uncertainty when we need this research more than ever. I can’t wait to use my past experience and research abilities to help inform all areas of personal finance and help drive change for those who need it.

Mind the (data) gap: we need national statistics on people’s banking experiences

By Sharon Collard

Since lockdown, millions of UK adults are reported to have switched to mobile banking as banks close branches or restrict their opening hours and struggle to cope with high call volumes. However, we seriously lack data on how people are coping with banking – both offline and online. From a policy and advocacy perspective, these important data gaps need urgent attention, especially as the UK’s ‘new normal’ will almost certainly mean ‘online’.

The UK has pretty good data on people’s internet access and – by extension – their capacity to bank online. This also tells us who the banks are leaving behind in their digital transformation programmes, which have been given an extra boost by COVID-19.

According to Ofcom, while 90% of the UK adult population used the internet in 2018, this falls to 67% among people with a disability. The gap in smartphone use is even bigger, with 78% of UK adults saying they personally use a smartphone compared with just 45% of adults with a disability.

ONS data shows that women and people aged 65+ are also less likely to use the internet. And, while 69% of adults bank online (rising to a whopping 93% of 25-34 year olds), this falls to 47% of 65-74 year olds and 23% of 75-79 year olds – although there are reports of growing numbers of older people registering for online banking since lockdown.

The two most common reasons people gave (pre-COVID) for not using the internet were lack of interest and lack of digital skills. Lloyds Bank estimates that nine million people are unable to use the internet or their devices without assistance; and 6.5 million cannot open apps (which presumably includes banking apps). CapGemini highlights cost as an important reason for ‘digital disconnection’ among young people.

This begs the question: how are non-internet users and others who find digital difficult – including consumers in vulnerable situations who physically can’t get to a bank – coping with banking in lockdown? Despite interesting innovation, the worry is that people resort to risky workarounds like sharing their PIN number or bank cards, exposing them to the threat of financial abuse.

There is some excellent ‘lived experience’ data as well as a whole range of new COVID-19 studies looking at its impact on every aspect of people’s lives – including the financial impact. However, none of these seems to shed much light on how people are coping with ‘offline banking’.

It is also hard to find any publicly available data on people’s experience of online banking. The most recent waves of the Financial Capability Survey of UK Adults and Financial Lives Survey (both fantastic data sources) don’t cover online banking in any detail – although future waves may do – and they are biennial. In the meantime, while banks have their own data and can pay for other data, these data are not freely or publicly available.

From a policy and advocacy perspective, these data gaps need urgent attention, especially as the UK’s ‘new normal’ will almost certainly mean ‘online’.