Dear [Ms Smyth}
We are a group of South Bristol parents whose children are at university in different locations across the country (Leeds, Birmingham, Cardiff, Bournemouth, Belfast, Glasgow, London, with friends at many others), and in all years.
We are writing here to raise the following very serious concerns around what is happening to students at the moment – our children and your constituents – and to their friends and people they are studying with, in terms of their rights, treatment, education, financial position, mental health and well-being.
Of course there are some positive experiences out there and good efforts on behalf of some universities and the people that work for them. Many young people are also resilient and amazing and will help each other.
Other students though will be reluctant to speak up or complain, for fear of appearing negative or weak within the context of a course of education they have only recently embarked on, or because they wouldn’t want to appear to be seen to be rocking the boat. All of them also want to learn and live their university lives. In all of this, young people urgently need our support and especially the support of those in positions of power.
Given that our own collective experience alone includes all the deeply concerning points below, we believe this constitutes a kind of unfolding emergency for students and the country. We want to see urgent action and help for young people and are writing to ask you to advocate for that as our MP.
· Young people were strongly ‘marketed at’ (as they always are) and encouraged to go to university and to move into packed halls. Now they are being nationally blamed for doing so.
· Universities angled their marketing at what young people needed to hear in order to go (‘we can promise you good quality education – we have things in place to offer a different but as high quality university experience’). Many of the promises that young people were given have dissolved within days of arrival.
· Isolation rules don’t seem to be taking into account the fact that newly arrived students don’t know anyone to help them in terms of accessing food, other supplies, washing clothes, medication, or that they will also need significantly more support mental health wise.
· Some students have received strongly worded letters threatening disciplinary action and police presence if they break any rules, having a significant impact on the mental health of some newly arrived and anxious students. There was no reassuring welcome letter, just threat of punishment.
· Track, trace and testing is not adequate at all! Nothing extra seems to have been put in place in many cities ready for students. Where are the testing centres close to or connected to universities where there are enough appointments available? Students with symptoms in Leeds have been asked to travel to Bradford for a test. Intensive and comprehensive testing could have been a key strand of the strategy to keep universities open, education high quality, students and local communities safe.
Infringement of Rights:
· Students are a diverse set of young people. They are adults, citizens, voters, responsible and caring human beings, consumers with all the rights that these categories entail. Yet they are being talked about and treated in places as if they are an entirely separate and homogenous underclass.
· Some universities are subjecting students to different rules to other adults: e.g. at Manchester Metropolitan, students were prevented from leaving their blocks by police and security, and were not allowed out to get tests. They also had no written communication from the university about this beforehand. The university has been challenged legally now and has backtracked on parts. But this is a very dangerous and worrying precedent.
The quality of education and university experience they are receiving:
Despite being promised ‘blended models as far as possible’ and ‘a different but equally high quality learning and university experience” many students have arrived to a very different picture already.
In terms of courses:
· For some students, all learning [is] quickly becoming on-line. This is not just lectures, which make sense, but also seminars and tutorials, which do[es]n’t. For most it is much harder to discuss things, or to speak up if you don’t understand, and there is no staying back to talk to the lecturer. Also, the chances to speak with fellow students as you go into the real life class and leave (“did you do the essay?” “What did you find for that bit” “Did you just understand that bit in the seminar about.”) have gone. Faces appear and disappear.
· Non library courses such as chemistry or dance are having some real life contact. However a dance student is having to do most of her classes and practice in a tiny, shared London flat.
· In reality moving large amounts of the curriculum online appears to have been rushed and undertaken quite haphazardly and without the care and attention true blended learning courses require, i.e., those that have been offered by the Open University and other institutions from a distance for many years. Successful and good quality online learning courses require careful planning and evolve over long periods of time.
· Very limited or no access to libraries because booking systems are full or collapsing. So far no other study spaces being made available
· Students in private accommodation struggling with wi fi and so patchy access to on-line learning.
In terms of wider education /student experience:
· Many clubs or activities not possible, or only possible in very limited ways
· Much socialising linked only to spending money (eg pubs open but not student ‘free’ spaces)
· No ability to contribute to the wider community
· Limited ability to move around or do anything in their new host cities
It is very unclear what is going to improve any of this, and how, and when.
Many of the problems above are sharply highlighted because they do not match what students were offered or what they signed up for, and because students are being charged £9K a year nevertheless.
In any other walk of life or similar transaction they would be getting money back already. It feels that the fees are far more about propping up universities than a fair cost for students. Issues include:
· Young people tied into debt products (fees and living expenses loans) that they can’t escape from, linked to the mis-sold experience
· Those in private accommodation (i.e. the vast majority who are not first years) are tied into rent for a whole year, a decision based on what they thought they would be getting education wise (blended, high quality model with time on campus rather than remote learning)
· The loss of part time income from low paid jobs that were sustaining many students in education and are leaving many in serious financial hardship or just causing extra stress and worry
All of the above is having a big impact on the mental health of many young people, and for some very worryingly. We know this from our own children, their friends and the students around them. For many this comes on top of the huge anxiety and disappointment around the collapse of the school system and exams, and the on-going worry and uncertainty of this time. Whist we see some resilience and more ability to cope in some young people, between us we are seeing the following at different times over the past two weeks as a direct result of the situation with universities. And we know that many other young people are far less s-upported and far more vulnerable than our children:
· Anxiety and depression
· A sense of panic
· Loss of control and agency in their situations
· Disillusionment and lack of trust in the institutions around them
· Sense of being ostracised and trashed by the rest of UK
· Anger at all this and a feeling of ‘why should I help anymore’
· Fearfulness about the future
Despite having 6 months to prepare – and all this being very predictable – universities, public health and the government seem to be unprepared for what is happening. There has been mis-management across the board.
Students are not children to be admonished in this, or prisoners to be locked in, or a section of society to be belittled, scape-goated and blamed for this systemic failure.
We are currently not seeing any political party or relevant body speaking clearly and constructively on these pressing issues as a whole
What we urgently want to see happen:
1. Politicians of all parties and local authorities take these issues very seriously and act urgently as it is an unfolding emergency that will have long term consequences for and impact on young people and the country.
2. Young people – students and all others – need to be thanked, appreciated and supported for all they have sacrificed and done so far in the interest of keeping mainly other people safe from a virus which poses relatively little threat to their own health on the whole. They need to be respected and spoken about as a diverse group, some of whom are – as in every age group – not responsible enough, and many of whom are being amazing (the Leeds student with symptoms cycled 25kms for his Covid test – as none nearby of course – to avoid public transport and protect others, and see this survey from yesterday: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/30/young-people-as-diligent-about-covid-measures-as-older-peers-survey-finds
They need to be encouraged and motivated to keep their spirits up, and to keep helping with the collective effort over the long haul. This is basic leadership / management stuff! And would get very different results.
3 Testing tied to universities needs sorting out! Or the HE system will simply unravel.
4. Students need to be explicitly offered guaranteed access to mental health support at each university
5. Students need significant financial reimbursement for poor quality teaching and learning experiences last term and the already poorer experiences unfolding now. Rushing large amounts of the curriculum online has resulted in a sub-standard product that does not reflect the one they were originally sold. This is hugely demotivating and detrimental to this student cohort, in comparison to those who studied before and who will (hopefully) come after. It is unjust that these students are being charged the same amount for something so inferior. They have essentially been mis-sold a huge purchase and placed into debt in relation. Reimbursement needs to be a blanket one, and from the Government (the students’ compensation that so many other sectors have had) and NOT something that each student has to pursue in a highly complex, laborious, bureaucratic, disempowering no-win type process designed to defeat the majority.
Thank you for listening to our concerns and for supporting our young people in parliament.
With best wishes
Ed: We have reproduced this letter from 1st October in full and added our own cartoon to illustrate some of the issues.