Roar writer Louis Jacques argues the KCLSU has neglected its duty of care to King’s College London’s student body during the Covid-19 pandemic.
England has entered its third national lockdown. Millions of students up and down the country will have paid thousands of pounds for no in-person teaching since spring of 2020- or even since February for universities where staff were on strike. They will have paid rent for accommodation near campuses they never visited, and will ultimately have received nowhere near the quality of teaching they signed up for.
Are large parts of the problem the government’s fault? Yes. The government routinely blames students, turning a blind eye as they are locked up in prison-like accommodation for weeks, and has refused to address the circumstances of the generation upon whom the financial burden of the pandemic will ultimately fall.
Are large parts of the problem also universities’ fault? Yes. Some universities have dealt with the situation well, perhaps even masterfully, but unfortunately, that is the case for but a small number of exceptions to the rule. While universities had no choice but to work around government rules and could not in good conscience put students at risk on campus, they have insisted that while the quality and quantity of teaching may have “changed” because of the pandemic, they haven’t admitted that it has also deteriorated, and thus believe it is fair for students to continue paying top dollar for what is by no means a high-quality education.
Both the government and universities have been hopelessly neglectful of students, and should be ashamed. However, while many of my peers and beyond have written a great deal about the cock-ups at institutional levels, they’ve ignored a major culprit: Students’ Unions. It’s in their names, isn’t it? Students’ Union. A union supposedly representing students and their interests. Said representation even exists on multiple levels, as the NUS supposedly represents students across the country, though exactly the opposite has happened.
The NUS, after years of digging itself deeper into irrelevance by ceasing to represent students and their interests (all the while sucking us dry of money), has pulled its last straw in its magnificent failure to represent students through this crisis. These are, by all possible definitions, unprecedented times, yet the NUS has contented itself with putting out press releases about how disappointed they are in the government.
Despite the worst mental health crisis in a generation, millions getting ripped off by their universities, a nonstop free-fall in student and graduate employment, and a lack of access to the level of education promised to students, the National Union of Students has used what little credibility they have left (after years of shrinking themselves into laughable irrelevance) to wiggle their fingers at the government and call it a day. They should be on the government’s doorstep every single day demanding action; they should be working tirelessly to keep students informed and protected; they should be demanding a voice, but instead are simply rolling over with a whimper. Frankly, it’s appalling.
So if we can’t trust the NUS to represent us when the government has failed, the next best thing should be trusting our own Students’ Union to protect us from the ridiculous shortcomings of our universities. That would be too easy, though.
While I can’t speak for other Students’ Unions, I can certainly speak about the KCLSU, and I cannot express with enough gravity how utterly disappointed I am in them and how ashamed I am to have them representing me and my peers.
I thought the SU taking a “neutral” stance on the strikes in February was proof enough that they no longer have any desire to protect students against the university, but the pandemic has made that evidence glaringly obvious. Apart from under a dozen embarrassingly bad blog posts about “places to eat in lockdown London” and a few emails just confirming what the university has said about Coronavirus measures, the KCLSU has actively refrained from representing students’ displeasure with the university’s handling of the pandemic.
In May, I felt that the least the SU could do was express solidarity – or at least sympathy – with undergraduate students from a dozen humanities departments and every postgraduate student when their safety net policies were reversed halfway through exam season… but the KCLSU said nothing. In September, I felt that the least the SU could do was ask for an explanation from the university as to why they did not go ahead with in-person seminar teaching, and what the plans were for semester 2… but the KCLSU said nothing.
In November, I felt that the least the SU could do was challenge the University on charging students thousands in accommodation fees to either work from home or remain locked in their accommodation, but the KCLSU said nothing. Finally, in December, when the University announced a suspension of semester 2 in-person teaching until at least the end of February (and probably beyond), I thought it was reasonable to expect the SU to challenge the University’s choice to charge all students full tuition for the year. They remained silent again.
If madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then I must be absolutely mental for expecting the KCLSU to live up to their responsibilities. Students now have no way to collectively voice their concerns to the university outside of departmental channels, and have no way to organise action against the university through the organisation we pay money to under the assumption that they will stick up for us when the university wronged us. That assumption has proven to be entirely incorrect.
After nearly three years of the KCLSU letting me and my peers down in innumerable, often laughable ways, this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Its leaders, a group which includes permanent, unelected staff, have actively exacerbated the impact of this unprecedented crisis on students, the very group they were established to represent. They should be ashamed.