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’.