Stop the harmful flip-flopping and give students a fair deal

With new lockdowns upon us, it’s time students received the financial relief they deserve, says David Green

January 12, 2021
Student covid mask lockdown
Source: iStock

Covid-19 deaths in the UK hit a daily record of 1,325 on 8 January. This tragic statistic − with worse ahead in excess deaths, which will likely reach more than 100,000 − came despite the development of effective treatments and the vaccination of more than a million people already (thanks to brilliant science). It has come despite the heroic, compassionate, professional work of nurses, doctors, care workers, cleaners and so many other dedicated and responsible citizens, including many tens of thousands of university students and staff.

The long, severe lockdown announced on 5 January is the direct result of flip-flopping government policy − too little, too late, mistargeted and, in December, disastrous.

University students and staff, like everyone in the country, desperately want our government to make good decisions, to provide effective leadership, to save lives and to protect our NHS. We are prepared to make every effort, meet every challenge, pay any price to save the nation’s health and the lives of our loved ones, friends and communities.

The pandemic has proved that universities really are essential institutions in society. No universities: no vaccines, no doctors, no nurses, no teachers. Today’s student is tomorrow’s dedicated professional. Nothing is more important for the nation’s future health and well-being than the education of our children and young people.

A guide to boosting student resilience and well-being

The pandemic has engendered a much stronger sense of community, with countless kind, selfless actions right across society. It has also engendered a change in what is valued, with the NHS, health professionals, carers, schools, teachers, colleges and universities all recognised as truly essential − a view now shared by most MPs, if not all the special advisers and far-right ideologues whose political sun has set.

In my view, it is only fair and right that students borrowing from Student Finance England should receive a fee credit of £4,675 for the 2020-21 academic year. Simultaneously, “home” fee students at English universities should receive a non-means-tested “pandemic hardship grant” of £500 for each month in which the lockdown announced on 5 January continues. The very welcome £20 million extra in hardship funds to universities should be tripled to deal with the wave of desperate individual applications we can expect as lockdown wears on.   

A fee credit does not suggest a lack of quality nor any short-changing or misleading “luring” of students, as consistently suggested with characteristic lack of evidence by the OfS chief executive. On the contrary, close, effective work between student and university leaders, staff, governors and partners produced excellent education in the most difficult circumstances. Last term at Worcester, 58 per cent of classes were in-person. Sustained investment meant that no student was left in digital poverty. Freshers’ weekend was a highly successful, socially distanced in-person event. There was no outbreak of Covid-19 on campus, which after much work and expense was made Covid-secure plus.

Cases among students and staff ran at a third of the national overall total and just 5 per cent of the average rate among students. No student was left isolated in halls or private rented accommodation. Students living on campus over Christmas enjoyed organised events as well as free Christmas meals. Lateral flow device and PCR Covid-19 testing is available on campus thanks to highly effective co-operation between the university and Public Health Worcestershire. All achieved without threats, fences or fining. So, there was no argument for a fee credit until the government decision that teaching should be online from 9 December and the subsequent January lockdown.

This new lockdown will likely last until Easter, not only because our hospitals are within an inch of being overwhelmed but also because the government will not risk a major relaxation until the great majority of the official 10 priority groups have been vaccinated. At two million vaccinations a week, the 10 priority groups, who comprise 43 per cent of the population, will be vaccinated by Easter. After Easter, there will be no justifiable reason for maintaining lockdown restrictions on universities, colleges or schools. Missing a whole term of in-person teaching, despite all the marvellous efforts to provide the very best online alternative, means that students deserve a fee credit. Making it half the standard annual undergraduate fee and applying this to taught postgraduate and PGCE students as well will be fair, inclusive and seen to be just. 

Do unto students as they would have done to them

Of course, it will be objected that HM Treasury cannot afford this. But there will be little patience for this argument among the people. After the £22 billion spent on Test and Trace, the PPE procurement scandals and the legion of other problems, spending a fraction of the people’s money on our young people − so many of whom have behaved in such an exemplary way at the cost of their own mental health − will be truly popular.

There will be even less patience for the unevidenced arguments advanced by the chief executive of the OfS, for instance, that the “quality of provision is not good enough”, that it is the universities who should pay, despite increasing costs and a pay freeze, and that somehow the online teaching due to the government restrictions and lockdown is the fault of the universities. When all this is over, it will be time to reinvent the Funding Council and to create a national framework that will sustain students, universities, research, health, education, opportunity and inclusion.

The time to avoid an epidemic of lockdown-induced student hardship, misery and discontent is now.

David Green is vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Worcester.

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