Since last Sunday I have had my eyes glued to this very screen in which I am now endeavouring to write this piece. Whilst physically I have crossed from the West of England to the East and am back within the brick walls of my university accommodation, most of my classes languish on the virtual ether.
As a third year student doing history, I’m honestly not very keen to cycle in the wind and the rain to a lecture on the medieval aristocracy; this virtual education malarkey isn’t so bad. However for freshers this is not a year one would want to be one. Though it may be somewhat pleasing to not see freshers’ flu so present this year with continuously enforced social-distancing and corridor lockdowns, at the end of day it was all part of the fresher experience and that has now been ended by this pandemic. The ability to make friends and build a social life that is very different from anything that many of us experience outside university, is extremely difficult now.
Of course we understand that we live in a surreal time and especially where I am, at Cambridge University, with weekly testing for every corridor. The privileges we enjoy in the face of this pandemic, compared to many parts of this country and the world, make it is hardly tough for us.
What is most concerning however, is the finances, and how the government has wholeheartedly failed to make any adjustments or arrangements with universities to reduce the burden of costs upon students and their families, many of whom face other financial difficulties as a result of this crisis.
I come from a family with both me and my brother now attending university. Though we are a lower-middle class family, the costs are still a significant stress for my parents, particularly with my brother’s need for a new computer. He’s doing a creative subject requiring good quality software and of course the wider demand of virtual teaching. For families much further down the socio-economic ladder, this year represents the most evidential divide in educational inequality. There is no additional universal support, beyond what is usually available year on year, for those who face financial difficulty as a result of the pandemic.
Furthermore, universities continue to charge us the highest rate of tuition fees. Yes, these are paid for by student loans and, yes, many of us will never pay them off, but yet we will pay for them through taxes and the inevitable assault of cuts that the government will make in the long-term to ‘balance the books’. This will not be fair. It’s like we pay £9,000 just to join Zoom calls.
But this is not the fault of the universities. They face numerous financial pressures. For example Cardiff Metropolitan University alone spent £1m+ on Coronavirus restriction-related measures. Also the number of fee paying students from abroad, whose fees essentially pay for two other UK students’ education, are coming over in smaller numbers, as are EU students with the threat of Brexit hanging over their heads. Universities cannot afford to reduce the tuition fee. Our education costs much more than that. Now the ability to deliver such an education is extremely reduced and does warrant a change in funding arrangements to reduce the pressure on students.
It seems we as a student generation are now far more engaged with politics than ever before since we face a time like never before where the government genuinely does not care about us. There have been no public statements or discussions between government and universities to alter funding arrangements. We are simply told that ‘universities were well-prepared’. Instead universities have been forced to reopen and carry-on to such a point, as they have almost become microcosms of police states, with the use of security guards in one instance to enforce quarantine and deal with inevitable outbreaks of covid within the universities’ student population.
Certainly some students have acted irresponsibly, but ultimately what did anyone expect. Thousands of 18 year olds have been stuck in their bedrooms unable to see friends or just hang out for several months. They were unable to celebrate their last weeks at school with no proms or parties and were unable to travel abroad properly or go Interrailing. Now they are locked in some dingy university digs in order to ‘gain’ an education in the hope of gaining a job in an oversubscribed job market. You’re only young once!
We can’t keep saying ‘oh stupid, irresponsible students’. There is no truth or value in such a statement. Students are acting as any students would act in any situation. Instead it’s time we asked the government to truly offer some hope to students. Listen to parents, listen to the universities and for once, listen to students. They need government more than ever. Financial arrangements must be made to mirror the wider discrepancies in experience and reality that students face today compared to anything students have seen before. The fresher flu and fair may not be around this year, but students still are. Government, for goodness sake, give freshers and all students the support they need!