Terms of no endearment

Students understand the need for lockdown restrictions, but paying rent for places they can’t stay in and being denied face-to-face education means some are getting angry

Hero image

Not long after arriving for his first year at university, Joe McFadden was forced to spend two weeks self-isolating in his bedroom. Like hundreds of students across the UK, McFadden had caught Covid-19 soon after arriving on campus, with 40 universities reporting cases before the end of September.

‘We are paying £9,000 for what is essentially the most expensive online streaming service.’

McFadden and his quarantined student peers didn’t know it at the time, but what they were experiencing – long days spent in their bedrooms, staring at screens as pre-recorded lectures started to be uploaded and seminars were conducted via Zoom – would set the precedent for their first year at university. Since then, McFadden has not attended one lecture in person. He has only seen his tutors on screens. Describing his experience of his higher education experience so far, the Manchester University history and politics student says: “Lecturers are on camera and you can still talk to them but it’s not the same connection you have in a classroom. You don’t actually know them. They are literally just pixels to you.”

When students flocked to new towns and cities last September to embark on the next chapter of their education, with more than half a million leaving home for the first time, most universities promised a “blended learning” approach, with students reassured their timetables would be filled with a mixture of remote learning and Covid-secure face-to-face teaching.

But as the second wave of the pandemic started to take hold and the virus ripped through university campuses it became clear that there was no safe way for masses of higher education students to return to the classroom.

The physical closure of universities was unavoidable in the effort to stop the spread of coronavirus. But with university students charged up to £9,250 a year for tuition fees (with significantly higher fees for international students), many are questioning the value of their online learning. Last November a petition calling for students to be reimbursed for this year’s fees reached more than 350,000 signatures, but following a debate in Parliament the government showed no signs of reimbursing fees.

McFadden, who currently lives in halls of residence, describes his university experience so far as having “ups and downs”.

“On the one hand I’ve enjoyed getting away from home, being independent, meeting new people to the extent you can in lockdown, but then also we are paying £9,000 for what is essentially the most expensive online streaming service. Then we are being charged extortionate rent to sit in our rooms all day learning via a computer when we were told multiple times and assured we would have some degree of blended learning,” he says. “[The university] said seminars would be socially distanced in person and lectures would be online and then within a week or two of us all arriving that was all canned.”

When McFadden arrived in his new city last September, the country was enjoying a brief lull in the pandemic. Cases were low, Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out To Help Out had just drawn to a close, and mixing was allowed in most places if adhering to the rule of six. It allowed first years to enjoy some distorted version of freshers week, but McFadden describes his first week at university as a “very weird experience”.

Now at the start of his second semester, he has mixed feelings.

“At times you feel motivated and think I’ll go and do something today, but most of the time you crawl out of bed past midday, just turn on Zoom, and feel really kind of down,” he says. “I’ve just felt really ambivalent about it all.

“Lectures are pre-recorded and seminars are live on Zoom. Last semester on a Wednesday I’d have a seminar at midday so I’d wake up for that and crawl out of bed, but even if I had a lecture scheduled on my timetable for 10am
I could just do it in the afternoon.

“I have found it semi-useful being able to schedule my own learning because I generally tend to work towards the night.”

‘It’s nothing new, our education being messed around with by the government.’

As well as the issue of tuition fees, students are campaigning on rent. January’s national lockdown announcement meant many students were unable to return to their accommodation after visiting their families for Christmas, but with the sector partially owned by private landlords and property management companies, many are struggling to get rent reductions.

Jodie Smith lives in a private student accommodation facility attached to the University of Salford. A final year broadcast journalism student, Smith says she and her flatmates are trying to make the best of their situation, but the private company that manages her building has not offered any reduction in rent.

“We received one email saying that because of the services the company offers they weren’t going to offer any money back, and that was the last we heard,” says Smith. “It’s the only email we’ve had about rent, and that was last year.

“I am living in my accommodation because it suits my circumstances, but I feel really bad for all those students who went home over Christmas and were told they can’t return. How can you tell someone who pays for private rented accommodation that they can’t return? I know people who are in that situation. They’re at home, they’re having all these rent payments taken out. If the government is going to advise students not to return to private rented accommodation then put something in place so those students then don’t pay out. They have left it down to private companies [to decide]. Of course the majority of them are not going to help students out.”

Last month a study by the National Union of Students (NUS) found student renters face a financial crisis as a result of the pandemic.

Over two thirds of student renters (69 per cent) said they were worried about their ability to pay rent, with around a quarter having been unable to pay rent (22 per cent) or bills (27 per cent) during the pandemic.

The NUS’s vice president for higher education, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, tells Big Issue North students are currently suffering from “economic injustices” as a result of landlords continuing to charge extortionate rents through the pandemic, with financial hardship being exacerbated by students being unable to supplement their income with their usual part-time jobs.

There is also the issue of digital poverty. Another NUS survey found 13 per cent of university students are unable to access their online learning, while 17 per cent do not feel the provision has been of a good standard.

When it comes to tuition fees, Gyebi-Ababio says students need to be compensated, and fees should be abolished.

“The funding of higher education and the marketisation of higher education has meant that the system of charging students tuition fees as a means of paying for education, which is a fundamental right, has always been flawed, and so to charge students tuition fees at all has been very unfair,” she says.

“We advocate for the abolition of tuition fees completely. However in the time right now, we recognise that as much as students are calling for tuition fee refunds, we’re really keen to see students get that economic justice through money back in their pockets.”

If government did take the step to partially refund or reduce tuition fees for this academic year, Gyebi-Ababio argues these refunds should be given back to students as rent rebates and financial hardship funding, rather than deducted from student debt they will eventually have to repay, which is subject to interest.

“And for international students who are self-funded students, they should be getting the economic justice that they deserve. And especially because they disproportionately are propping up the funding of this sector in a way that is exploitative to them in a really harsh and unfair way.”

McFadden, Smith and many of their peers in higher education have already experienced a string of disruption at the hands of the government. In 2017 then-education secretary Michael Gove overhauled the GCSE examinations, introducing a new grading system and making changes to the curriculum – with coursework effectively scrapped. Last year, in light of the pandemic A-level exams were cancelled and the government was forced to make an embarrassing U-turn after largely downgrading results based on an algorithm. None of this has been forgotten, and McFadden says the fury among students is palpable.

“There is definitely anger and it’s growing every day,” he says. “Students feel let down. It’s nothing new, our education being messed around with by the government. GCSEs changed, A-levels were cancelled, they subjected our future and livelihoods to an algorithm based on nothing and then U-turned. There is definitely a growing anger among students and it’s not going to go away, I don’t think.”

At 18, McFadden hasn’t had a chance to exercise his right to vote yet, but when Big Issue North asks if we can expect to see him at the polls in 2024, he doesn’t hesitate to answer.

“Definitely,” he says.

Main image: First year Joe McFadden is finding university life challenging (Rebecca Lupton)

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Terms of no endearment

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.