Students everywhere find themselves in the middle of an unprecedented set of challenges; from the A-Level and admissions crisis earlier in the summer to mass moving to university campuses and being blamed for local outbreaks. As your Students’ Union, we have been getting a lot of requests for information on what we have been doing on a range of things, such as tuition fees, value for money, accommodation and wellbeing support. We work closely with the University on all these issues, supporting them when they get it right and fiercely advocating for students when they can do more. If we’re honest, we recognise we haven’t done anywhere near enough to keep you updated about our work on your behalf, and we will do better over the coming weeks and months to arm you with timely, relevant information. It should also be said, we can’t always give you the answers you want or deserve, and all of us find ourselves stuck in a broken system with the financial burden always being placed at the feet of students. For up to date information, please visit our Covid hub at: manchesterstudentsunion.com/covid
You might have heard much in the news over the last six months about the chaotic approach to the management of the pandemic in the UK. We’ve seen a track and trace system not fit for purpose, a lack of financial support for students and universities, and now three separate tier systems impinging on the Higher Education sector and trying to navigate all this is exhausting for every single one of you. Every time an announcement is made, when there are more restrictions put in place, you get to do less, be expected to be more understanding and have less access to the things we know are vital. The most important set of guidelines came from the Department for Education (DfE) on 30th September, after most universities started their Campus Re-opening. The details can be found here and last week, The University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University moved to tier 3 of this guidance. This means in most cases your teaching will be conducted online. Universities and Students’ Unions were asking for this guidance for months to help you make informed decisions about whether to come to campus, sign housing contracts and understand what your year could look like. Repeatedly, we’ve seen students be ignored by decision makers and this isn’t good enough.
Our first priority has been to protect the health, safety and value for money for our students. We continue to negotiate with the University on a daily basis around these topics. It is clear to us that students who are not getting the education promised by Government and the University deserve a reduction/refund of tuition fees. We’ve heard the same arguments being made as in every ‘ordinary’ crisis; that students are still getting a valuable qualification. In these unprecedented times, these ring hollow. It is a complex problem though, and we’ve recently published a blog here. It should be recognised that universities have been under real pressure from the start to re-open as usual, and along with the school sector, carry on as if there isn’t a dangerous pandemic circulating. We’ve taken a proactive approach to ensure students could benefit from accommodation contract cancelations, the no-detriment policy applied to students graduating and progressing between academic years, and a huge increase in the student hardship fund (thanks in huge part to donations from alumni around the world). We meet with senior leaders of the University on a regular basis to put these things in place, and we are now doing more, particularly in the shift to online teaching. Whilst we will always support measures which protect the health and wellbeing of students, we still believe a high-quality experience needs to be maintained.
We know students are experiencing less than expected (whether you are a home or international student) and we’ve had hundreds of students contact us, particularly around value for money (tuition fees, accommodation fees, cost of living). Our position is that students should be able to be recompensed for things which don’t meet expectations, which is why our Student Advice team is available to support any students who wish to complain about their circumstances. We have also worked closely with the Student Experience team at the University to ensure students who wish to leave their halls can do so with no financial penalty (details here). Here’s a couple of other examples where we’ve put things in place:
As mentioned earlier, the biggest challenge of all remains the tuition fee burden on students. It is a complex issue and affects home and international students in very different ways. Most home students have no direct financial relationship with the University and utilise the student loans scheme to pay fees until future earnings allow them to pay back. For home students, simple reduction in fees could result in students actually paying more over the long run due to the poor design of the system. This is an issue which requires a two-prong approach; individual complaints and national lobbying. For international students a reduction in tuition fees is reasonable and can demonstrate how transparent and fair the university is, as an institution that teaches fairness and believes in the principles of consumerism.
Universities were turned down by the Government for any kind of financial support, forcing them to recruit students, charge fees and pass the debt burden onto students. Many other sectors have been well supported by public funding during the pandemic, yet Universities, one of the key sectors for ‘levelling up’ the economy has been ignored. As student leaders, we will continue to lobby the government to support us, but we also want university leaders to do the same. Our Vice Chancellor, Nancy Rothwell is the Chair of the Russell Group of Universities and we would like her to use her influence and access to raise these issues with ministers. We have joined forces with the #studentsdeservebetter campaign through NUS and other students’ unions with the following key asks:
Please sign the petition here and continue to talk to us via our Facebook channel over the coming weeks. We have also created a specific Covid hub on our website which we will update daily with more news/blogs/information as we have it. Our absolute priority remains your health, safety, wellbeing, education and support.
Finally, we need as much data and information as possible to truly amplify your voices to the University over the coming weeks. The decisions taken now will affect the rest of the academic year. We have developed a survey and it has allowed us to capture a lot of your concerns and experience for this first semester. We will analyse these data and ensure that that drives our negotiations with the university towards ensuring that your experience as a student is greatly enhanced.
Your SU Executive Officer Team 2020/2021