Christmas saw the pandemic at its most confusing and chaotic point. Tier systems were changed three times, our Christmas plans were thrown out the window, and the only respite we had was a NYE drone show and a last-minute scramble for a Brexit deal. While this left us somewhat optimistic for a better 2021, Monday’s lockdown announcement has left a sour taste in the mouths of students across the country. Boris’ speech was clear: we must stay at home, schools must close, and we must work from home. Of course, this lockdown is a necessary evil, but for university students the advice is as clear as mud. The only advice is given in a small section on the Gov.uk website, stating that students ‘should remain where they are wherever possible and start their term online’.
This comes as no surprise – in September university students were used as a scapegoat for causing the second wave, and in December we were told to drop everything early and return home in a 7-day window. Now, after being given little direction from the government, we seem to be gearing up for another round of blame throwing at those of us who can’t study in our hometowns.
Many students rushed home after the November lockdown so that we could spend Christmas at home, safe in the assumption that we would be able to return to University in the New Year. Because of this, most would have had to leave their belongings in their university accommodation; this means months’ worth of lecture notes, textbooks, and any other study resources were all left at University. Current advice from Vice-chancellor Stuart Corbridge states that ‘if you are away from Durham, you should stay away’, so we have no option but to struggle on without these critical resources. Even during Michaelmas term, library study spaces were readily available for those needing a quiet space to study, but this term there’s now no guarantee that the library will be open at all. The library is a fundamental resource for research, because, despite their best efforts, many of the books are still not available online, thus further restricting the content students have access to.
This offers no comfort to those of us who had already booked non-refundable train tickets to return to Durham, with full confidence in the University’s LFT testing system. Albeit this is a minuscule financial burden by comparison to the price of student accommodation. A single standard room at a catered college in Durham now costs £7894 for the academic year – a huge price to pay for an empty room and no catering. While the University could easily reimburse students for these rooms, as they did last summer, they haven’t confirmed that this is possible. Also, this doesn’t solve the problem for any students living in privately rented accommodation. If these students stay living in their hometowns as instructed, they will be stuck in contracts paying bills for empty houses, without financial support from the university.
A Save The Student 2019 survey found that 74% of UK students were working in part-time jobs while they studied. Now, as part-time jobs in hospitality and retail are slim pickings, it’s going to be tricky for students to keep afloat while at university. Not to mention the decimation of the graduate labour market since the pandemic began; according to Prospects Illuminate, interest in postgraduate study has risen, but also the low-availability of term-time jobs mean that ‘students from less advantaged backgrounds’ may struggle to support themselves at university. This undoubtedly has scope to contribute to the clear class divides at universities like Durham, and the long-term employment prospects of students as a whole. Money worries, the impending doom of summative season, and the huge amount of uncertainty with online learning will only worsen the mental health of the student community at a time of National Crisis. The support we have been offered seems insufficient to tackle the scale of these issues.
With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that tuition fee refunds have been requested as compensation. Online university is not what any of us signed up for, but it’s what we’ve put up with for two terms, and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. To give some perspective, the Open University offers online degrees, which cost £6192 per year whereas traditional universities in the UK are charging £9250 for the same online experience. To add salt to this wound, the Open University know how to deliver online lessons – they’ve been doing it since 2013 when they founded FutureLearn. But normal campus universities are relatively new to this kind of technology and have never had to rely on it on such a large scale before. This has meant that technological difficulties, poorer quality tuition, and a lack of accessible mental health support have become the norm, and that only scratches the surface of the issues students have faced.
While the prestige of attending a university such as Durham is appealing, this is tainted significantly when we are denied access to the quality of education many of us came to expect. A petition has been circulating online that seeks to reduce university tuition fees from £9250 to £3000, and it has already gained 395,000 signatures. Even if these reductions sound outlandish, it’s really the least students can ask after the year we’ve had, and the financial pressures we continue to face every day.
Image: Amana Moore