Watching the prime minister’s announcement of a new lockdown in England on Monday night, I felt an all too familiar sense of panic. University students, at all levels from fresher to newly graduated, have been woefully neglected and jeopardised by the government during the pandemic.
A lack of guidelines on examinations and assessments, unrealistic promises of on-campus learning, painful and uncertain separations from families, and entrapment in accommodation with extortionate rents are just the tip of the iceberg. Yet again there was no mention of universities during Boris Johnson’s address to the nation, and government guidance for universities online remains vague and open to interpretation.
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, I have been working on the student response at my university, as an elected representative on the students’ union council, but like many others, I have barely set foot on campus since 2019 due to my own mental health, and intermittent teaching staff strikes between November 2019 and March 2020. Even before the March lockdown, these University and College Union strikes had removed a hefty chunk of the 2019-20 academic year’s teaching for many of us.
Now we have endured almost a year of university with an experience worth far less than the £9,250 in fees students in England are forced to pay. This is not to devalue the online learning provided by many institutions, but to point out that a decade of austerity and changes to university funding have left us paying for what should be a public good, rather than a private product.
From September, students were encouraged on to campuses around the country, although it was already clear that there would be little to no in-person learning for the new academic year. And in the current strict lockdown, many students will be essentially locked out of the accommodation they pay for, as they are prevented from returning to term-time addresses after the Christmas break. They would not be in this situation if it wasn’t for exploitative landlords rinsing the student market, and underfunded universities desperate for every penny of revenue.
Since the start of the pandemic, barely a day has passed where I have not seen cries for help from students on Twitter, or seen them being blamed for the rise in Covid transmission rates. In reality most students are careful about following guidelines, and just as concerned about the dangers of the virus as everyone else.
It’s clear that some institutions have handled this far better than others. However, students do not blame their teaching staff for these difficulties, but rather they focus on university leadership, regulators and the government.
Without government-mandated policies on how institutions should protect students’ grades, each university has implemented its own measures. Some brought in “no detriment” policies in the second term of 2020, which saw students automatically awarded their average grade from the first term. Extended deadlines were introduced at others, or first-year students were given an automatic pass. Some simply adjusted grades where they considered it necessary.
At Sheffield Hallam University, I co-lead the #HallamSafetyNet campaign for no detriment measures. As in-person learning shut down last year, thousands of students signed a petition urging university leadership to listen to our concerns as we were unable to speak to lecturers or use libraries, labs and equipment. Rooms in university halls are rarely luxurious, and few people have access to outside space. Students who had gone home to their families for safety were sharing equipment and unstable wifi connections with others who were also adjusting to home working. The withdrawal of on-campus wellbeing services saw an alarming increase in students suffering mental health crises. Against this backdrop, we were expected to produce work of the same calibre as before, and if we didn’t we risked losing the degree classification we had worked so hard for. In a difficult future job market, how will the pandemic’s graduates compare with those who came before?
In this academic year, we still aren’t being heard. Student voices should not be underestimated: we are the future – but we are treated as if we play no useful role in society. We are not just young people enjoying a frivolous youth: we are activists, volunteers, researchers, trainee doctors, nurses, teachers, parents and much more. Many are already working on the frontline while we continue our studies.
There needs to be urgent action from government and universities to ensure that students are not disadvantaged by current events for the rest of their lives. We feel under-appreciated and vilified, and little more than cash cows for landlords and university chancellors.
Responding to the new lockdown restrictions, the National Union of Students’ vice-president for higher education, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, called for rapid investment in high-quality online teaching, learning and mental health services, no-detriment policies in every university, rent rebates and the opportunity to leave tenancies early.
There are also calls to reduce fees (which vary around the UK), issue refunds, or cancel student debt from March 2020 until normal campus life resumes. But this raises the question of why education is not free in the first place, and if we really are simply consumers, why are we not automatically entitled to refunds? What we need most of all, however, is to be listened to, supported and treated as the adults we are.