Whilst this past year has undoubtedly been disruptive for everyone, I can’t help but feel that Covid-19 has caused university students to have an especially scarring and tragic experience. If you look past the headlines of “lockdown fences” being erected at Manchester University or humorous posters of “9K 4 what?” adorning the windows of accommodation blocks across the country, you’ll realise that every student will have a story about studying during the pandemic.
Some will have managed to thrive, forming a close-knit bond with their fellow freshers, whilst others will have fallen victim to a deeply flawed system that is increasingly keen to put profit above wellbeing. In a January 2021 survey from the Office of National Statistics, almost two-thirds of students reported a worsening in their mental health since September. Although an alarming figure, it isn’t necessarily shocking: the pressures of adapting to online teaching and a lack of social opportunities would foster loneliness in anyone, let alone a teenager dumped in a new city living on their own for the first time.
Media scrutiny has certainly centred around first-year students, with good reason. However, the struggles of all higher education students deserve to be heard. Whether that be the second and final year students who have had half of their university education taken away from the lecture theatre, those who had their “year abroad” cancelled, the industrial placement students who have conducted virtual business meetings in their childhood bedrooms or the graduates who never got their graduation ceremony and now have to find employment in quite possibly the most competitive job market ever.
There’s also been little coverage regarding Britain’s non-EU students, who are paying anywhere between £12,000 to £20,000 without the assistance of Student Finance England. Fees aside, studying and adapting to life in a foreign country in a national lockdown is both a remarkable and terrifying achievement.
Despite this chaos, the wheels of the university machinery keep on turning, snatching their £9,250 and printing out that coveted degree certificate at breakneck speed, all while failing to acknowledge that students, fundamentally, are getting a bad deal. We know this; we signed our petitions, wrote to our vice-chancellors and produced sarcastic TikToks to ridicule our so-called “university experience”. We know that our university education has been quintessentially inferior compared to our predecessors, and vital networking opportunities have been reduced. The million-pound question is whether our future employers are aware of the consequences?
The burden on these employers should not be underestimated. Due to this lost education, the economic impact has the potential to be incredibly damaging for years to come, especially for graduates of practical subjects. Despite the calls from the government to ensure those studying practical courses return, implementing and monitoring this certainly isn’t easy. Without intervention, a generation of future graduates may leave university less experienced than their older colleagues – whether this is through chemistry students missing precious lab time or medical students having their placements interrupted. The list, unfortunately, is endless.
Universities will never say that they have delivered an inferior learning experience. Still, the same ONS survey showed that in January 2021, over a third of students were reportedly dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their academic experience. The numerous petitions from students requesting a refund or reduction of fees further exemplifies this, with one example generating over 270,000 signatures.
Naturally, the activism from an increasingly unhappy student body has fallen on deaf ears so far, so the latest news of University students being allowed to return to campus on the 17th of May feels like a final slap in the face from an uncaring and unbothered government. By this time, most students will have completed their teaching for this academic year, so only a minority will be able to sit in a lecture theatre before September.
Covid has fundamentally changed the way education is delivered and has exposed the greed of a university system fixated on fees and finance. It’s time universities remembered that behind every payment of £9250 is a person, not a number, who deserves some support in the wake of a potentially scarring academic year. It’s time our voices were heard.