This is the time for students to be heard and compensated

University students across the nation have been seriously impacted, disappointed and politically shafted over the past year. At the start of the academic year, many were told that, on a case-by-case basis, students whose quality of learning had proven to be inadequate could perhaps be compensated – but only after going through a complaint procedure with unsure guidance. 

During the second lockdown, students in some areas were fenced in their accommodation, leaving them vulnerable and isolated with no in-person learning whatsoever. The third lockdown only means that the remaining months of university life will feel unrecognisable and incomplete. All universities in the UK have been substantially affected by the pandemic and all students therefore deserve and qualify for financial compensation. 

Students have turned down many opportunities out of their consciences and goodness of their own hearts. Understandably, the media has drawn attention to the few illegal parties and rule-breakers who threaten  this -hopefully- final stretch of national efforts before vaccinations are commonplace and effective. This requires sacrifice, grit and hardship, which are qualities that students have been tirelessly displaying since the first lockdown began last March. In order to do this, students have had to give up on their university experience twice already, and now for the foreseeable future, in order to protect the most vulnerable members of society and the NHS.

Students have made the most out of this difficult situation, but they are struggling. To go without the necessary downtime means we have become run down; to continue for so long with an intense, and sometimes gruelling academic workload has left them exhausted. Rent, living fees and a constantly increasing debt are some of the expenditures students are facing, which further strains them and leaves them both financially and economically weakened. More will always need to be done to support students with their mental health, and one issue which should be lifted from students’ minds is the pressure of keeping up with rent while the government advises everyone to stay at home.

Students deserve better during the pandemic. It was understandable at the time for people and universities to have been optimistic during the summer months, believing that blended learning was going to be a viable option for the 2020/2021 academic year. In retrospect, a lot of better decisions could have been made, impossible to see back then, but that does not mean we can’t have better policies and procedures now. Universities have shown resourcefulness and determination with their attempt to fully create an online learning experience. However, I think criticism, dismay and outrage at this lousy situation should not be bottled up: for many students, online learning has not been acceptable or to a high enough standard that warrants no complaints. It has been poor. It has certainly not been worth the money, and it does not reflect the announcements about the satisfaction of learning from home.

Attending university from home is not the same as working from home. Working from home to prevent infections should be applauded; the HMRC policy which enables workers to claim a £6 weekly allowance to compensate for incurred living costs should be expanded in order to encourage staying at home. The government needs to stop omitting the discussion on university students and must address the matter directly. There is no justification for the full tuition fees students are being currently charged. Reducing fees by half would be more than symbolic, as it would mean adjusting to the reality of this unfair situation. Students have welcomed the University of Leeds’ one-week blanket coursework assignment extension this January, but this again reveals the unprecedented amount of disruption faced by students this past year. Rent refunds, academic assistance and mental health issues need to be tackled this year. Pro-student policies help everyone, and the public should join in on this pledge in the same way that it has supported COVID-relief packages across all sections of society.

Having further education has never been more important than in this coronavirus economy. In the long-term, universities need to understand that young people who have been affected by the strains of the pandemic have incurred high debts but with a huge lack of personalised teaching. Even younger people who are currently studying their A-Levels will face changes, which means all students have seen their education negatively impacted. This really could be the required impetus for a much-needed reform of the tuition system.

Seamus O’Hanlon

Image source: Geograph