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The pandemic has left university students to the mercy of an absolute shift to an electronic classroom environment, but with all its perks of accessibility and financial benefits for the institution, this shiny brave new world of online learning comes at the expense of fundamental necessities for student learning.
As a third-year English undergraduate at King’s, the past year has uncovered a plethora of truths about academic supervisors the way in which student grievances have been considered, or rather, how they haven’t. It has become very apparent that neither university administrations nor government representatives are willing to accept responsibility for this debacle of a year and countless broken promises. No one wishes to address the very obvious problem of student dissatisfaction which is only exacerbated further each day, rendering continuous and active student protest seemingly futile.
With limited avenues to express our frustration, several petitions made in the last month have quickly garnered tens of thousands of signatures in a matter of hours- continuously shared throughout varying social media platforms. More physical measures like rent strikes or repeated emails from student reps to heads of departments and faculties further illustrate the general sentiment toward the handling of student welfare. Despite being persistently vocal about the struggles of higher education and academic pressure in unprecedented circumstances, it is consistently disappointing to observe a response that only belittles our suffering.
Recent parliamentary debate illustrates the sheer lack of understanding and sympathy MP’s display. Minister of state for Universities, Michelle Donelan asserted a disheartening opinion in November:
“I wholeheartedly dispute the suggestion that all students are being let down ….. does look different, because we are in the midst of a global pandemic, but different does not have to mean inferior.”
Such statements seem to contend with student consensus and deny the situation rather than address it head on.
Whilst it may be true, online teaching benefits educational institutions in terms of financing, accessibility, and a “flexible approach”, the educational aspect directly relating to student welfare suffers.
Access to physical resources is not the same when trying to opt out of a singularly digital environment. The Maughan Library reserve and collect function leaves much to be desired. In my experience this alternative method to extended screen time, has left me waiting 2 weeks for certain texts to be ready for collection, often too late for seminars, even though reserved well in advance. And if you are not in London there is simply no access to them anyway.
Lack of accommodation is physically detrimental, and the unfairness mounts when put into perspective against government guidelines for compulsory education facilities. It is so heartbreaking to see how schools across the country try to find a balance that is healthy for young minds, whereas university students that pay for this education because we desire to learn are swept under the rug. Being incentivised my whole academic career to pursue higher education in promise of better job opportunities, accumulating thousands in debt for this goal, yet my degree and the huge financial commitment behind is repeatedly ignored.
This becomes so much more infuriating when you take into account that the universities individually do not plan on refunding students for this fiasco of a year. If you take the average earnings of a higher education lecturer, which typically ranges from £35,000- £40,000 per annum you realise that about 4-5 student tuition fees go to cover that amount. As evidenced in the HEPI report in 2018, a large portion of the rest goes towards maintaining university facilities and having access to those spaces, which we currently don’t. Or rather, the loophole is that a small portion of study spaces are open and able to be booked, the university even openly encourages students to use those spaces, of course, in the same breath as urging us to stay at home.
Many students moved back to university accommodation at the start of the year, trusting promises of a blended approach to learning. This was not delivered. The only information received from King’s administration were vague emails expressing the wish to “remain flexible”. University over the past year has directly violated several points of the consumer rights act of 2015, under which the rights of higher education students are protected. Breaching several of our consumer rights as students, namely:
- Information provision – universities need to provide up front, clear, intelligible, unambiguous, and timely information.
- Terms and conditions – universities’ terms and conditions that apply to students need to be fair and balanced.
- Complaint handling processes and practices – universities need to ensure their complaint handling processes and practices are accessible, clear, and fair to students.
Earlier this year I filed a formal complaint to King’s College London stating my grievances concerning the lack of accommodation for students such as myself who are struggling. Yet my appeal was in vain- only to be redirected to the head of my department, who is unable to take action against higher university administration.
Similarly, universities refuse to lower fees without government mandate and the government, as we’ve seen, elects to ignore our appeals. I would draw attention to the fact that this goes against section 56 of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 which provides the consumer with the right to a price reduction:
(1) The right to a price reduction is the right to require the trader to reduce the price to the consumer by an appropriate amount (including the right to receive a refund for anything already paid above the reduced amount).
Although understanding that the current global situation forces us to resort to online learning; the implication that it is just as effective as in-person teaching is outright nonsensical.
The past year has been a substantial breach of student rights in higher education, and in the case of value for money, an irrefutable violation. Basic needs for support and acknowledgement are denied. To sit passively is compliance with substandard education.
In this hyper vigilant epoch where everyone is so concerned with following the science, it is ridiculously ironic that not only mental and social health of young adults is neglected.
Until responsibility is taken and changes undertaken to provide real support and alternative methods of teaching for struggling students, we must continue to protest this treatment. If schools can find solutions to provide safe in-person teaching environments, so should the universities! If this is not a viable option, compensation should be granted.
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