It has taken a global pandemic to highlight that we live in a country where university students have fewer protections than package holiday customers. Got a holiday booked to a country that has closed its borders? No problem: you’re entitled to a refund. Signed up for a year’s tuition at over £9,000 – plus another £5k or so on a student accommodation lease – only to find you are stuck at your parents’ place, learning on Zoom? Hard luck, but at least you won’t have to start debt repayments for a few years!
It was obvious that starting the university year as normal last autumn was not going to end well. Some areas were already seeing Covid infection rates rocketing: triggering the mass migration of a cohort of predominantly young people – the group most likely to transmit Covid asymptomatically – across the country to live in close quarters with others was hardly going to help. Yet the government and universities were both insistent that students were going to get as good an experience as usual.
It wasn’t long before things started to go wrong. As predicted, universities quickly started to see outbreaks: efforts to make learning more “Covid-secure” by moving to a blend of face-to-face and online learning could not counteract the fact that densely packed student housing is the ideal environment for Covid to spread. Suddenly, many students – some living away from home for the first time and having just suffered the A-levels fiasco – found themselves having to self-isolate in box rooms with little support, as their universities moved to online-only learning. Students in Manchester woke up one morning to find that their university had erected metal fences around their halls to prevent them leaving freely. There were a few days where ministers refused to rule out locking down students in their halls over the Christmas break, heightening anxieties further when many students were experiencing declining mental health and the added financial stress of not being able to rely on part-time work.
Boris Johnson didn’t even mention universities in his TV address announcing a national lockdown on 4 January. Instead, instructions that the vast majority of students should stay home were dribbled out in government guidance. I’ve heard anecdotal reports from some academics that this entirely passed some students by: they’ve arrived at their universities expecting the blended learning of last term. There have been zero answers for students whose courses have been moved wholly online, and who are paying for accommodation the government has told them they cannot use. It is unclear for many whether their substandard learning experience – unable even to access their university library – will be taken into account in their degree assessments.
No one was expecting universities to be able to put on a normal experience during the pandemic. But the response – we’ll pocket your fees and figure out the rest later – has been woeful, the product of a disgraceful collusion between the government and vice-chancellors, neither of whom wants to rock the boat with the existing student funding model. Gavin Williamson, probably the least competent education secretary this country has ever seen, has been missing in action, occasionally popping up to lambast students for disinviting former Conservative ministers from speaking at events. One might expect vice-chancellors to have been loudly and collectively calling for the government to provide something – anything – for students, whether a fee rebate, a goodwill payment, accommodation refunds or all of the above. Yet the silence from all but a handful has been deafening: they appear more interested in propping up the existing funding settlement than asking for anything for their students that could send the whole house of cards crashing down. Meanwhile, the Office for Students, the university regulator, has simply said refunds for tuition and accommodation are a matter for individual universities.
The result is the mass gaslighting of students by both the government and their universities. Everyone is insisting that they are getting a good experience for fear of the financial implications of admitting otherwise. What should have happened is that the government levelled with students at the start of the academic year: we’re really sorry that you can’t have the academic and social experience you deserve this year, but we’ll stump up for significant fee discounts. It should have provided behind-the-scenes bailouts for those universities who needed it. When it was patently obvious they were not going to do it, vice-chancellors should have publicly lobbied for it. Instead, they have left students petitioning for fee and rent rebates out in the cold. Forget student radicalism: all they are asking for is the same protections we rightly extend to holiday customers. The government is happy to treat students as consumers when it supports their marketisation drive, less so when it might involve refunds.
It is staggering that the government has seen fit to treat a whole cohort of students in this way. It is not just callous in the extreme but politically self-defeating. The irony is that even as ministers fret about lefty academics indoctrinating students into becoming lifelong Labour supporters, they’re doing a pretty good job themselves of radicalising a generation of anti-Conservative voters. I remember Conservative party conference events just a few years ago where backbenchers earnestly debated how they might be able to win the youth vote. Perhaps a good starting point is not duping a whole generation into paying thousands of pounds for an experience you know can’t be delivered? But I suspect ministers such as Williamson will continue to lambast students for their intolerance of Conservative politicians as a displacement activity for engaging in a bit of self-reflection as to just why they may be so unpopular.