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£40 million extra to support students facing financial hardship

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Welsh Government have announced an additional £40m for universities to support students facing financial hardship, helping the students most affected by the pandemic with expenses such as accommodation costs.

Universities will be asked to prioritise funding towards the most vulnerable students, as well as strengthening advice and support services for students. 

With most students currently being asked to study at home, the funding will also be used to address ‘digital poverty’ among students, to enable better access to online learning, and costs incurred due to the need to self-isolate.  

The funding is in addition to over £40 million the Welsh Government has already provided to help universities this financial year, which has included £10m towards student hardship, mental health support and student unions.

The funding will come from the Welsh Government’s Covid-19 Reserve, to support the national response to the pandemic, and will be distributed to universities by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW). 

Kirsty Williams, the Education Minister, said: “This year, due to reasons beyond their control, many thousands of students have not been able to return to campus yet. In some cases, this means some students might still be paying for their accommodation while they are unable to use it. We recognise how difficult this is, which is why we are announcing this additional funding.

“Our universities have worked tremendously hard to support their students, ensuring learning has continued, while putting measures in place to protect their students, staff and their local communities.  This funding will allow them to build on that good work.”

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Rebecca Evans, the Finance Minister and Trefnydd, said: “In such difficult times, it is vital we continue to support people currently in education, who will be instrumental as we rebuild our economy in the wake of the pandemic.

“This funding will also help tackle inequality, by ensuring the most vulnerable students and those most affected by the pandemic can complete their studies.

“If you are a student here in Wales, your university or students’ union will be able to provide you with further information about the support available.”


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Health

Swansea scientists develop new method to detect viruses in a pinprick

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Scientists at Swansea University, Biovici Ltd and the National Physical Laboratory have developed a method to detect viruses in very small volumes.

The work, published in Advanced NanoBiomed Research, follows a successful Innovate UK project developing graphene for use in biosensors – devices that can detect tiny levels of disease markers.

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For many parts of the world that do not have access to high-tech labs found in hospitals, detecting viruses such as hepatitis C (HCV) – could save millions of preventable deaths worldwide. In addition, biosensors such as this could be used at the point-of-care – opening effective healthcare in difficult-to-reach settings.

What makes the detection of viruses in such small volumes possible is the use of a material called graphene. Graphene is extremely thin – only one atom thick – making it very sensitive to anything that attaches to it.

By carefully controlling its surface, scientists at Swansea University were able to make the surface of graphene sensitive to the HCV virus. These measurements were done with graphene specialists at the National Physical Laboratory.

In the future, it is hoped that multiple biosensors can be developed onto a single chip – this could be used to detect different types of dangerous viruses or disease markers from a single measurement.  

Ffion Walters, Innovation Technologist at Swansea University’s Healthcare Technology Centre said: “Highly sensitive and simplistic sensors have never been more in demand with regards point-of-care applications. 

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“This collaborative project has allowed us to realise proof-of-concept real-time sensors for HCV,  which could be especially beneficial in resource-limited settings or for difficult-to-reach populations.”

Professor Owen Guy, Head of Chemistry at Swansea University, said: “At Swansea University, we have now developed graphene-based biosensors for both Hepatitis B and C. This is a major step forward to a future single point of care test”

Dr Olga Kazakova, NPL Fellow Quantum Materials & Sensors added: “NPL was delighted to be part of this multidisciplinary team. Participation in this project allowed us to further develop our metrological validation facilities and apply them to the characterisation of graphene biosensors and aid in solving an important challenge in the health sector.”

Lead image: Graphene device chip attached to an electrical connector, with two 5 μL HCVcAg samples (one applied on each graphene resistor). (Image: Swansea University)

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Science

Public health professor becomes Fellow of Academy of Medical Sciences

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A Swansea University public health expert has been honoured by the prestigious Academy of Medical Sciences

Professor Ronan Lyons, Clinical Professor of Public Health at Swansea University Medical School and one of the two Directors at Population Data Science, is one of 60 outstanding biomedical and health scientists admitted to the Academy’s influential Fellowship.

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The new Fellows have all been recognised for their remarkable contributions to biomedical and health science and their ability to generate new knowledge and improve the health of people everywhere.

Professor Lyons’s research focuses on the use of health information to support the targeting and evaluation of health and non-health service interventions to improve prevention, care and rehabilitation.

During the pandemic, his team have used insights from the rich health data in SAIL Databank to support policy decisions to protect the public, including providing intelligence to the Welsh Government’s Technical Advisory Group and subsequently feeding into the UK’s SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies).

Professor Lyons said: “I am delighted and honoured to be selected as a Fellow by the Academy of Medical Sciences.

“This undoubtedly reflects the widespread appreciation of the contribution research conducted using the SAIL Databank make to individuals and society. 

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“It is also recognition of the fantastic team science approach in Population Data Science at Swansea University and our dedication to the advancement of health research through our many collaborations across the UK and around the world.”

The Academy of Medical Sciences is the independent body in the UK representing the diversity of medical science. Selected from 366 candidates from across the UK, the 60 scientists chosen marks the highest number of new Fellows ever elected.

Academy President Professor Dame Anne Johnson said: “It gives me great pleasure to welcome these 60 experts to the Fellowship to help to address the major health challenges facing society.

“The diversity of biomedical and health expertise within our Fellowship is a formidable asset that in the past year has informed our work on critical issues such as tackling the Covid19 pandemic, understanding the health impacts of climate change, addressing health inequalities, and making the case for funding science. The new Fellows of 2022 will be critical to helping us deliver our ambitious 10-year strategy that we will launch later this year.”

The new Fellows will be formally admitted to the Academy next month.

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(Lead image: Swansea University)

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Health

New study suggests four in 10 in need of social care in Wales did not access services during the pandemic

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As many as four in 10 people in Wales who may have needed social care did not access its services during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new report.

Commissioned by Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament) and led by Dr Simon Williams of Swansea University, the study explored public attitudes and experiences of social care in Wales two years on from the start of the pandemic.

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The study, which involved a survey of 2,569 respondents in Wales and a series of focus groups, found that the Covid-19 pandemic hit social care hard, exacerbating the social care crisis, and intensifying pressure on the workforce.

The study’s key findings reveal that four in 10 people who felt that they or someone in their household or close family needed social care during the past two years did not receive or make use of it.

The pandemic was cited as a major reason why many of those who may have needed social care didn’t access it – either out of fear of contracting Covid or because they didn’t want to burden social care services that were experiencing significant pressures.

Satisfaction with social care was variable, according to the study, with approximately one-third either very or quite dissatisfied, and a little over half either very or quite satisfied with social care services for themselves or a household or close family member.

Among those who felt that they or someone in their household didn’t receive or make use of social care despite needing it, the most common reasons people gave included: lack of availability or staff shortages (22%), not fitting eligibility criteria (17%), feeling too proud to access care (15%) and the application process being too complicated (10%).

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Most of the respondents (86%) felt that the social care system in Wales needs reform, and 94% of said that it should be a priority for the UK and Welsh Governments.

In the focus groups, participants argued that there is a need for consistency in the social care received, more personalised care, better integration between health and social care, and a need for more investment in social care. Some felt that reform should see the integration of social care into the NHS, while others argued for the establishment of a separate national care service.

Dr Williams said: “It is concerning that approximately four in 10 of those feeling in need of social care did not receive or make use of social care services. Social care policymakers and providers should seek to understand and address what people feel are the main barriers to accessing or using social care, including increasing provision for those who need it, encouraging and enabling those who feel they need social care to apply, consider broadening the eligibility criteria where appropriate, and simplifying the application process.

“As with healthcare services, another challenge for social care services may be the need to address a potential backlog in those needing care, who were either unable to access services due to restrictions or staff shortages, or did not want to apply because they were concerned about infection risk or did not want to bother services.”

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