How many times can one government let students down?


it feels like in some cases, students were hoodwinked (Picture: REUTERS/Molly Darlington)

Going to university should be one of the most fun and positive experiences in someone’s life. Sadly, this year it seems to be anything but and some of the stories we have seen are alarming.  

Up and down the country, students have been trapped in their halls of residence. Images of them talking to journalists through partially opened windows, with calls for help pinned to the windows – ‘let us out’, ‘HMP Manchester’ and ‘send beer’ – speak volumes. 

Incredibly, thousands of students are self-isolating following outbreaks of Covid-19, including around 1,700 students at Manchester Metropolitan University, not to mention hundreds at other institutions including in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

On Friday, it emerged that at least 770 Northumbria University students had tested positive for coronavirus. A PA survey suggests that at least 56 universities in the UK have confirmed Covid-19 cases.

In Manchester, there are reports of students being physically prevented from leaving by security

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Meanwhile, a fire exit was allegedly tied shut at one student accommodation block in Leeds. IQ Student, the company responsible for the building, said that it would be investigating, adding that the exit was ‘one of several escape routes from the building. The issue was later ‘resolved’ by West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service.

This is already a scary and confusing time for students and comes after the results scandal – the combination of the two may have lasting damage.

I’m especially concerned for students’ mental health during this traumatic time. Mental health is something that is being spoken about a little more often, but not nearly enough. And while the pandemic and lockdown has had a debilitating effect on everyone, some are suffering more than others.

I know of students who were hoping that escaping to university would offer them the freedoms that have recently been taken away from them by the lockdown brought about because of the pandemic.

To be confronted with a more confined lockdown in often a smaller unfamiliar space, with people they don’t know, can only be having a negative impact. I urge the Government and universities to ensure that students get the support they need.

It could be said, though, that a Covid-19 outbreak at universities was not only unsurprising – it was totally predictable, considering strangers from all over the country would be coming together.

So, this all begs the question, why didn’t the Government do anything to mitigate the risk? And why were students sent back to universities unprepared in the first place?

The answer, I believe, is clear – money. 

While there are no easy solutions, it is like the Conservatives haven’t even tried

Many students only found out after paying for their accommodation that much of their courses would be taught online, instead of in-person lectures and tutorials. For some, this was neither expected nor desirable. 

Students who are paying up to £9,250 a year – plus accommodation on top – essentially have to work from their laptops on campus, with minimal socialising. Where is the joy in that? They could have studied from home, instead of moving across the country.

When you listen to how shocked students are by their experience, it’s clear that serious questions need to be answered. It’s almost as if they were encouraged to sign up under false pretences and then put into unsafe conditions.  

It is clear that students are relied on as a source of income – not just for universities through fees and accommodation, but also for private landlords. The truth is, the Government has massively let them down and placed profit above people yet again.

The Conservatives could have worked with universities to plan for, and solve problems, but once again the Education Secretary has failed the very people who rely on him.   

The Government could also have been open and honest with students about what to expect – including the extent of online learning, and the high chance of being required to self-isolate, and the risk of being denied the chance to spend Christmas with their families. 

These young people would have then been able to make an informed decision, and if they decided to defer for a year, the Government could have had an open conversation with cash-strapped universities and potentially stepped in to help. Instead it feels like in some cases, students were hoodwinked. 

One thing Boris Johnson could do now, as Labour has called for, is to consider pausing the return of university students until we have an effective and efficient test, track and trace system in place.  

While there are no easy solutions, it is like the Conservatives haven’t even tried. There has been a failure of leadership, and Johnson and Dominic Cummings have shown that they simply do not care about students. 

Cummings once advertised that he wanted to hire ‘people who have fought their way out of an appalling hell hole’ – who would have guessed that he would have been part of a Government that is creating hell holes at every turn. 

Students deserve so much better than this cruelty. But it is never too late to do the right thing and a proper plan will both protect our students and give them the positive, fun learning experience that they deserve.  

Young people are our future, but they are suffering in the present, and we must fight for them.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing rosy.edwards@metro.co.uk

Share your views in the comments below.

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