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We cannot let King’s get away with cancelling our education again

universities reopening lecture theatre

Roar writer Noah Eastwood on the lack of attention paid to universities reopening by the government and the failures of King’s leadership to help students at this time.

More extraordinary than the things students campaign about are the things that they don’t. The mass closure of university campuses and the confinement of our education to cramped bedrooms and squashed kitchen tables in poky, extortionately priced accommodation should provoke the most furious student movement in modern times. But the energy is sadly lacking. If the government and university administrators are allowed to cancel the education of a generation of young people with such uncontested ease, does anyone really expect that they will ever give it back to us in full?

Homeworking must be a dream for most senior academics, who no longer have to commute from their cushy suburban pads to slightly less cushy offices. It also means that there’s a much smaller risk that paid-up students will corner them after lectures or – God forbid – turn up to their office hours. The truth seems to be that most academics hate having to deal with students, especially undergraduates. We’re just contemptible little squirts in comparison to their jumble of post-nominals and columns in the Guardian.

So, the attitude of the leadership at King’s over the past year really shouldn’t surprise anyone and if it does you might care to cast your mind back to the beginning of our second semester of 2020. Even before Covid, selfish “teaching” staff deprived us of a term’s worth of education through strikes over GTA pay. An email I sent to faculty at the time asking about refunds might as well have been written in Sanskrit. As with now, mealy-mouthed waffle about a “world-class education” was their response. Perhaps the most insulting thing about the strikes was that, at least at King’s, striking staff members didn’t even bother to turn up to their own picket line. Instead, a few feeble marks were scrawled on the floor in chalk around the Strand.

We may never know whether it’s possible for students to actually strike en masse, but now would be as good a time as any to find out. If you thought the academic year 2020-21 was bad, it doesn’t look like it’s about to get any better. Departments are already readying us up for another year of online learning. In emails sent to students recently, faculty leaders promised a “blend” of in-person and online teaching. Lectures? Online, of course. All this, they say, will vary between modules. So, it’s a pot-luck really. They’re not even ruling out going back fully online at the drop of a hat. The claim that “campus will be open” is paradoxical. How can campus be open, just not for teaching? As far as libraries and study space are concerned, you’ll have to book online and just promise not to breathe too much when you’re there.

These empty promises are reminiscent of last summer’s vague emails over “blended” learning.

Let’s not get started on the twice-weekly testing regime they plan to put us under. Enough is enough. The risk of students becoming severely ill due to Covid-19 has always been minimal. The “spreader” argument has now had the feet knocked out from under it by the simple fact that virtually everyone who is at risk has now been fully vaccinated. You might still be fearful of the virus, but we should all be able to agree that we are not getting our money’s worth. A degree from the Open University, where courses are taught fully online, costs just £6,336 a year. How can King’s, or any UK university for that matter, justify charging us more? The simple answer is: they can’t. Every administrator with a conscience should be thinking long and hard about this.

Why hasn’t higher education stood up for students? Universities have exceptional bargaining power with the government. Ministers rely on academic advice for a huge range of issues from the environment, to urban planning and national security. King’s in particular has numerous contracts with government departments for research and strategic planning. Much of the critical research around Covid-19 has come out of our top universities including King’s. In-person education for students is crucial to this. But unlike the travel, hospitality, and sporting industries university leaders have failed to take the government to task over the impacts of lockdown. Universities opening didn’t even feature on the government’s roadmap out of lockdown. The obsession about schools going back makes the silence over our future feel deafening.

The sad truth is that despite King’s incessant “we care” messaging, in reality, they could not care less. Few will be aware of the fact that we have just got a new principal. Shitij Kapur’s welcome video, where he spouts as many platitudes as he can at the camera in five minutes, makes you wonder whether he’s aware that King’s students have the capacity for critical thought. University administrators and students should be united in their fury at the government, who are prioritising people getting drunk over students receiving an education. Ministers clearly think it’s OK to spread Covid in a host of circumstances, including during the Euros final at Wembley, so why not on campus? Government schemes have trialled raves, concerts, theatre shows, sporting events and nightclubs… but as yet there hasn’t been a single trial lecture. We all ought to send Dr Kapur a friendly email asking if he could raise this oversight to the relevant secretary of state.

In the meantime, the words of former acting-principal Evelyn Welsch should ring in our ears: “you’re not getting nothing. You’re still getting a degree“. University is about more than just “getting a degree”. So many students find their calling in sports, societies and the countless other niches life on campus can offer. “Student satisfaction” is nonsense; this is our life. The rest of the population should not be allowed to go back to normal after 19 July while we stay stuck in our bedrooms, blearily staring at Microsoft Teams.

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