WWatching the prime minister’s announcement of a new closure in England on Monday night, I felt an all too familiar sense of panic. College students, at all levels, from recent graduates to recent graduates, have been woefully neglected and endangered by the government during the pandemic.
The lack of guidelines on tests and assessments, unrealistic promises of on-campus learning, painful and uncertain family separations, and the trap in exorbitant rental housing are just the tip of the iceberg. Again, universities were not mentioned during Boris Johnson’s address to the nation, and government guidance for online universities it remains vague and open to interpretation.
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, I have been working on student response at my university, as an elected representative on the student union council, but like many others, I have barely set foot on campus since 2019 due to my own health mental health, and intermittent teacher strikes between November 2019 and March 2020. Even before the close of March, these university and college strikes had eliminated a large part of the teaching of the 2019-20 academic year for many of us.
We have now endured almost a year of university with an experience that is worth far less than the £ 9,000 in fees that students in England are required to pay. It’s not about devaluing the online learning that many institutions offer, but rather pointing out that a decade of austerity and shifts in college funding has left us paying for what should be a public good, rather than a private product.
Beginning in September, students were encouraged to go to campuses across the country, although it was already clear that there would be little to no face-to-face learning for the new academic year. And in the current strict lockdown, many students will essentially be excluded from the accommodation they pay for, as they are prevented from returning to course time addresses after the Christmas break. They wouldn’t be in this situation if it weren’t for exploitative landlords flushing out the student market and underfunded and desperate universities for every penny of income.
Since the start of the pandemic, hardly a day has gone by when I have not seen students screaming for help on Twitter, nor have I seen them blamed due to the increase in Covid transmission rates. In reality, most students are careful to follow the guidelines and are just as concerned about the dangers of the virus as everyone else.
It is clear that some institutions have handled it much better than others. However, students do not blame their teaching staff for these difficulties, instead focusing on university leadership, regulators, and government.
With no government-imposed policies on how institutions should protect student grades, each university has implemented its own measures. Some introduced “no detriment” policies in the second period of 2020, in which students automatically received their average grade from the first period. In others, extended terms were introduced or freshmen were given an automatic pass. Some simply adjusted the ratings where necessary.
At Sheffield Hallam University, I co-lead the #HallamSafetyNet campaign to stop harmful action. When face-to-face learning was closed last year, thousands of students signed a petition urging university leaders to listen to our concerns, as we were unable to speak to professors or use libraries, labs, and equipment. Rooms in college hallways 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 Wi-Fi connections with others who were also adjusting to work from home. The withdrawal of wellness services on campus led to an alarming increase in students suffering from mental health crises. In this context, we were expected to do work of the same caliber as before, and if we didn’t, we ran the risk of losing the grade classification that we had worked so hard for. In a difficult future job market, how will graduates of the pandemic compare to those who came before?
In this academic year, they still do not listen to us. The voices of students should not be underestimated: we are the future, but we are treated as if we do not play a useful role in society. We are not just young people enjoying frivolous youth: we are activists, volunteers, researchers, doctors-in-training, nurses, teachers, parents, and much more. Many are already working on the front line as we continue our studies.
Urgent steps need to be taken by the government and universities to ensure that students are not harmed by current events for the rest of their lives. We feel undervalued and vilified, and little more than cash cows to homeowners and university principals.
Responding to the new blocking restrictions, the Vice President of Higher Education of the National Student Union, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, called for rapid investment in high-quality online teaching, learning and mental health services, policies without prejudice at all universities, rent refunds and the opportunity to leave the leases early.
There are also calls to lower fees (which vary across 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? However, what we need most is to be listened to, supported and treated like the adults that we are.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism