Roar writer Kenza Essalama on petitions organised by King’s students to reinstate the “safety net” policy and the general state of higher education over lockdown.
2.3 million. £9,250. 21. 76,305. 37%.
Some of those numbers may be familiar; most will not be. Numbers without context mean very little, yet university students across the UK have consistently been reduced to little more than trivial statistics in the battle against Coronavirus. With barely a passing reference made to them in government announcements or guidance, it is unsurprising that students are feeling alienated, cheated, and largely ignored.
When applying for university, it is unlikely that anybody envisioned the ‘”best years of their life” to be filled with Microsoft Teams lectures and curfews, nor did anyone expect to be paying rent for accommodation they cannot return to, or to be duped by false promises of on-campus teaching. The pandemic was certainly unprecedented, to use the buzzword of the era, but it has now been almost a year since the first lockdown and there have been seemingly no improvements made to university support and response.
On January 4, Boris Johnson announced a third national lockdown in England. The plight of university students was not deemed important enough to mention. GCSEs and A-Levels have been cancelled – will similar provisions be made for those millions of university students struggling with mental health, rent, and access to resources? The answer remains unclear.
Victoria Turner, a third-year English Language and Linguistics student at King’s, is one of many taking action, specifically regarding assessments. Victoria started a petition advocating for the reinstatement of the so-called “safety net” policy. After the announcement of the first lockdown in March 2020, King’s introduced this policy “to ensure that no student will be disadvantaged academically by the impact of the current situation”. At the time, there were 422 coronavirus deaths in the UK. Now, by January 2021, this has tragically risen to 76,305. The crisis has worsened over time – this is the basis upon which students at King’s and across the UK are demanding support at least equal to what was provided in March.
Victoria described how her university experience has been “completely ruined”. She signed a lease for private accommodation only after being assured in multiple emails from King’s that on-campus teaching would take place. Upon arrival in September, this was not the case; she is only one among thousands who have had no contact hours. This situation is impacting students financially, academically, and mentally. A Randstad report revealed that 37% of UK students have experienced a downturn in their mental wellbeing since starting higher education in 2020 – a statistic which cannot be reified in isolation from the effects of the pandemic. With no apparent alternatives, students are being forced to take matters into their own hands. Victoria encourages students to sign her petition because it is an opportunity “to get their voice heard and to hold our educators accountable for our education”.
A similar petition, organised by Misha Bazarov, has been gaining traction, garnering just under 2,000 signatures at time of writing. One need only look at its comment section to understand the urgent concern across the student body at King’s. Other actions are being taken on social media platforms to demand rent rebates and tuition fee refunds. The student voice is rising to combat attempts to silence it, and that voice should not be underestimated. There are over 2.3 million students in the UK, and it is likely that every single one of them is outraged by the treatment they have received from their universities. Paying £9,250 for a few hours of online teaching is unacceptable – most students will graduate at the age of just 21 with huge debts to their names, difficult to justify as the result of a substandard and unfair experience they did not sign up for.
2.3 million. £9,250. 21. 76,305. 37%.
After reading this article, the numbers I first introduced without context will now have become meaningful. It is easy to ignore individual human lives when they are generalised into statistics, but the moment that veil is lifted and real stories are brought to light, change can happen. Students have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic; it is the responsibility of their universities to account for this and offer wide-reaching support that acknowledges the personal struggles of each student under their care. Students are more than just a number, and it is high time that this is recognised.