Ignored and forgotten: are students paying the price of this pandemic?

Written by Paige Furlonge-Walker

‘Frustrated’, ‘fragile’ and ‘numb’. These are the words that now define what it feels like to be a university student during a once-in-a-generation crisis.

And no, I’m not just talking about COVID-19. As I discovered while talking to Kate, Hannie and Becky, three students at the University of Leicester, the gross negligence illustrated by the UK government during the entirety of this pandemic has left thousands of students furious.

“£9k for Skype?!” has become a common phrase for students in 2021. Online seminars, isolation from friends, and cancellation after cancellation—yet no safety net? As a final year Sociology student, and now, a somewhat forlorn member of the next working generation, I feel not only failed by my government but also neglected. So, despite our battle cry, why is the student body being ignored?

In the midst of this global pandemic, university students seem to be the forgotten army. Left out of daily briefings and PMQs, universities and their students are either unimportant or invisible to the government. I cannot be the only emotionally-fatigued-student who screams at their TV screen while another politician snubs a rare question surrounding the treatment of nation’s higher education cohort.

Kate (3rd year, History) suggests students are being “brushed under the carpet.”

“[The government] expect us to fight our own corner. They have the wrong idea about students. They think we are non-stop party animals dying to go back and party. This is just not the case!

“In reality we all work really hard to be at uni and we just want to go back to the environment that we are supposed to study our degree in.”

This opinion is backed by the masses who signed GOV.UK and change.org petitions galore. There are currently twelve GOV.UK petitions that call on the government to either ‘reduce tuition fees’ or support the reimbursement of student rent. ‘Reduce University student tuition fees from £9250 to £3000’ has currently gained a just over 500,000 signatures and will be considered for a debate in Parliament. The sheer number of petitions that call on identical issues, demonstrates the extent of students’ frustration.

According to the mental health charity Mind UK, 73% of students said that their mental health declined during the first lockdown, but there seems to have been no response to this staggering statistic.

Hannie Makant (2nd year, Geography) feels that the pandemic has left many students in “a permanent state of stress.”

Nonetheless she reassures me she is “very lucky” to have the support system of close friends and family. Those students who have neither, are now being ignored by the two institutions who are supposed to offer a helping hand: the current government and their universities.  

Likewise, Becky (3rd year, Media) says that “it is absurd that we are just being left to our own devices by everyone, and I do not feel that links to the mental health services which are bursting at the seams, or weekly emails detailing no changes, are good enough.”

I understand students are not fighting on the front line, but that does not take away from the fact that university students are enrolled onto courses that have not been adequately provided – not since the 2019 strikes anyway.

“I did not sign up to the Open University for a reason,” Becky added. “I signed up for the full university experience which includes in-person teaching and paying a considerable sum for student accommodation.”

Safe to say, the anger at the way students have been treated is felt by many.

At the time of writing, the University of Leicester has not provided any details whatsoever about the implementation of a Safety Net Policy.

On the 6th of May 2020 an email – the usual COVID-19 Student Update – was sent, but this time there was brilliant news. The University of Leicester’s Safety Net Policy applied to the majority of undergraduate students. Graham and Louise (PVC Education and the Academic Registrar) claimed to ensure we “achieve at least the degree you were on track for before COVID-19 disrupted your studies or to enable you to progress to the next stage of your programme.”

However, students have now been abandoned, with their only resort being to sign endless petitions and open letters in order to reimplement the very same Policy that was supposed to ‘ensure we achieve the degree level before COVID-19 disrupted our studies’. The pandemic is in a worse now in January 2021 than it has ever been. Surely this equates to being disrupted and deserves the attention for universities to act accordingly.   

2.38 million: this is the amount of university students under the watchful eye of the current government.

Becky feels “blatantly ignored by the government,” and comments that she “doesn’t understand how they are getting away with such ignorance,” especially when we were once blamed for super spreading the virus. It seems ridiculous that the government “refuses to acknowledge anything to do with us,” unless as a guiltily provoked afterthought. Like Becky, I am frustrated, but most of all I, like thousands, want to know why.

Hannie had some interesting answers. She speculated that students are considered in a very awkward middle-ground between school children and adolescents or the working adult. Although, she thinks we will be generation to fix this crisis, “they don’t know what to do with us!”

The mammoth pile of consequences will be left at our door. From a devastating economy, to our very own mental health epidemic (if we do not have one already). Wisely, Hannie noted that “to forget us is to forget who will deal with the fallout.”

So, in a time so riddled with constant uncertainty and anxiety, what is the solution?

Firstly, even a mere heartfelt acknowledgement by PM Boris Johnson would put some minds and hearts at ease. If it is good enough for GCSE and A-level students, why not university ones?

Secondly, university owned or not, a reimbursement of all student accommodation rent paid to universities and private landlords during the crisis.

Next, for the government to start an open conversation about tuition fees and strongly consider a review to refund in some fashion. I’d like to also suggest a financial package of sorts for all students suffering from any mental health issue(s). This financial support could provide counselling for example. We appreciate how extremely challenging the last year has been, but the student population should not be so blatantly dismissed. It is worth remembering that students are the future.  

Paige Furlonge-Walker is a a final year sociology student, a member of the university’s lacrosse club and has recently found a great interest in journalism. You can find them on instagram here: @pfwanne 

Image by Jeswin Thomas, from Unsplash.

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University of Leicester's Student Magazine

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