Seeing Boris Johnson’s face on our TV screens as he says, ‘stay alert, control the virus, save lives’ has become a common occurrence for any UK household. He’s told us to stay home and stop attending non-essential work. He’s told us that a vaccine (thank God) is doing the rounds. He’s told pubs, schools, and various businesses to close.
But what he’s failed to address time and time again has been university students.
On Monday 4 January, Boris declared that the UK was going into a third lockdown, which meant schools and colleges were to close once again. He said, reassuringly, that the government would devise a plan to support students due to take their GCSE and A-level exams this summer. After all, these have been challenging times that have made learning all the more harder and many students have had extra stresses on top of their exams to handle.
But what about university exams? Was there any mention of those? Of course not. Uni students have tests and assessments to worry about too – in fact, many had exams the same week the third lockdown was announced, and will continue to throughout the year. But, according to Boris, this didn’t matter.
Boris also failed to address whether students were or weren’t allowed to return to university, despite the new semester commencing the same day as his announcement, despite the fact that many are still paying rent for their accommodation, and despite the fact that some students were already at uni and consequently were left unsure about whether they had now trapped themselves in their empty student halls. Nothing was clear, as Boris’ scripted, pre-planned announcement lacked the effort to acknowledge the existence of universities.
There’s around 2.38 million university students in the UK. That’s a lot of people who need clear guidelines, who need support, and who are typically being left with far more questions than answers.
Since Boris’ announcement regarding Lockdown 3, students have managed to find out that they aren’t allowed back to university until mid-February (at the earliest) unless they’re studying an ‘essential’ course which requires face-to-face learning, like medicine. All other courses are completely online. Obviously, there is a valid reason for this – to keep people safe. That’s understandable. The frustrating part, however, is that Boris never actually said this, but rather left students to work it out themselves by joining the dots from various sources.
“I was quite lost after Boris’ lockdown speech, to be honest,” says Scott, a geography student in Leeds. “He talked about school and college but he didn’t say anything about uni students. I was thinking, is that because the same rules apply to us, or has he just completely ignored us again? I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when you’re left to find out what’s going through social media posts, and word of mouth from other students, and confused emails from lecturers, it can be chaotic. … I found some guidelines (about university students) written on the government website in the end. It was actually quite hard to find as it was buried pages down and not really mentioned beforehand. … There’s no communication.”
While schools and colleges have been at the forefront of many of Boris’ speeches and plans, universities seemed to have been brushed under the carpet, and not even worth a second of acknowledgement in comparison. Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, told The Edinburgh Reporter: “Students and universities have been left in the dark once again about the start of the new term. [The government] should have advised without delay that in person teaching won’t start until after February.” He added that students deserved clarity “about what their studies will look like for the forthcoming year.”
Passing the blame
Perhaps this all sounds a little dramatic. Poor students being forgotten. It must really sting not being the centre of attention. But we have to remember that these people were told to come to uni, despite the pandemic, and this is the service they’ve been given. Many students felt pressured into accepting courses due to “panic offers” being dished out, alongside warnings that there wouldn’t be a place for them if they deferred instead, as unis feared they would lose applicants (and masses of money) due to the pandemic.
Students were encouraged to come uni despite worries, and this is the reassurance they get: a fistful of neglect and little to no support. And they’re paying £9,250 a year, plus rent, for this service. We know the government has a lot of people to deal with – key workers, those on furlough, scientists, free-school-mealers – as well as students. It must be hard work. But this ignorance has happened again and again and again, and really, what is the reason for this?
According to The Tab, Boris has never mentioned uni students in his televised nation-wide announcements. If we include other speeches and press conferences he’s held about Covid-19, he’s only mentioned students 10 times across this entire pandemic. Before July, he’d only mentioned them once.
And let’s be honest, these 10 times haven’t all been that complimentary. The government has constantly blamed the spread of Covid-19 on students. Yes, the spike was partly inevitable due to students moving across the country to join the universities that they were encouraged to take their places at. But factors like more people returning to work and the Eat Out to Help Out scheme also contributed to a rise in cases. Of course, there are students who have been reckless, disobedient, and have helped to spread the virus – without a doubt – but there’s lots of non-students who have too, and to brand the millions of UK students all as the problem is rather unfair.
This is also rather disrespectful when we consider all the good things students have done throughout lockdown. For instance, thousands of nursing and midwifery students joined the NHS frontline for their final student placement, to help support the surge of Covid-19 patients in UK hospitals. Yes, you could argue that this is what these students signed up for – to help in scenarios like this – but it’s still a brave thing for an unqualified student to dive into nonetheless. And what thanks did they get? The government cut their placements (and pay) shorter than the 6-month period they had originally advertised their placements to be. This poor communication sparked yet another case of abandonment of students by the UK government.
A mental health crisis
Maybe this all sounds a little melodramatic. Perhaps you’re shaking your head, thinking, you’ve got it all wrong. The government is trying their absolute hardest – they can’t solve every problem at once. Maybe that’s true. But one thing I will say, however, is no matter how ‘understandably’ rocky you might say the whole student situation has been, there is a point where enough is enough. By looking at the mental health crisis spreading throughout the UK’s uni population, it seems we have reached this point.
According to the mental health charity Mind, 73% of students say their mental health has declined during lockdown. On top of that, at least one university student has died every week since the start of term in September 2020. Not all of these deaths are Covid-19 related, but many have sadly been suicides as mental health has deteriorated during the pandemic. Surely, with matters this serious, the neglect students are facing cannot be helping.
Various students have criticised the mental health support available at their universities. The University of Exeter, for instance, has had students claiming, “it took [the uni] over a month to provide me with help after my suicide attempt” while others never heard back from them at all. It’s also worth noting that Exeter University actually reduced its staff for mental health support during the pandemic. Meanwhile, students in Manchester were caged into their halls with metal fencing, and Lancaster University moved one of their students to a completely empty accommodation block (without any food, a mask, or even a phone charger) after he’d been caught self-harming. I think this paints a pretty clear picture of the neglect students are currently facing. It may not be all of them, but it’s enough for us to spot a serious pattern.
While this matter isn’t necessarily the government’s fault, and points more directly to the universities themselves, the case is still clear: when we put students and Covid-19 together, there is a common theme of abandonment. This cannot be ignored.
And actually, when we look at all the cuts the NHS has received from the Conservatives over the past decade, it’s no wonder there’s a lack of mental health support out there for many. In December, some universities addressed this issue as they called for the government to put more funding into student mental health services.
It’s true that university students are not the only people suffering during the pandemic. They are by no means the only people who have it hard. Others have lost jobs, lost loved ones, and are feeling equally hopeless. But this isn’t a competition. One person’s suffering is not a reason to ignore somebody else’s. Abandoning students is not a solution – if anything, it just becomes another problem among the chaos.
This is without going into other topics like the rent many students are having to pay for student halls they can’t even access. The £9,250 a year student fees they’re paying for a course which is being taught online, using dodgy wifi and recycled PowerPoints, without access to the facilities they’re paying for. Inevitably, this is affecting the quality of learning and support many students are receiving. “I’m having to teach myself everything,” says Nithini, a graphic design student in Southampton.
With this in mind, you’d appreciate the government at least acknowledging them. And if the very people managing this country – who are supposed to provide support, guidance and leadership – won’t pay attention to students, who will?
These are difficult times for everyone. But these are no longer unprecedented times for universities. Covid-19 was discovered over a year ago. Yes, a lot has changed since then, but let’s be real: this pandemic feels ancient. And we all knew the university term was restarting after Christmas. So why the chaos? Why the confusion? Why the abandonment?
On 16 February 2021, 15:32 Claire Jenns Kickstart Team commented:
This article should be required reading for parliament and Boris especially!
On 16 February 2021, 18:56 Ali Muzaffar Kickstart Team commented:
Very thought-provoking read! I know a few people who are currently studying for their masters or are in their final undergraduate year who all feel they've been left in the dark as to what's going on with their studies or have had to teach themselves course content! Students definitely seem to have been left behind by the government with everything else going on