Dear Minister of State for Universities,
We STILL believe in better. And this is STILL not good enough.
We wrote to you on 6 October 2020 and have not yet received a reply. By failing to respond to our letter you have failed to respond to the needs of our members: the students at the University of Nottingham.
In our original letter, we outlined the issues that students are experiencing – namely mental health concerns, loneliness, an inability to socialise and cope with the challenges that this year has presented. According to HEPI data, 58% of students feel their mental health has been impacted by the pandemic; a statistic that we believe could have been improved by better support from the people that are in positions of power. Students’ increased anxiety has been exacerbated by an unjustified demonisation seen in the media; they have acted as your scapegoat when guidance was delayed and unclear. This certainly does not equate to your promise ‘to lead from the front’ throughout this pandemic.
What is needed
Releasing guidance at the last moment without the detail required to act on it has left universities unable to prepare and implement sufficient plans to support students. This has left students feeling as though their university experience has not been given the consideration it deserves from you, the Minister of State for Universities. There has been little regard to how policy will work the ground, and no attention to the demands of the students that are experiencing the consequences of your decisions.
Even when guidance has been released, there are issues that are recurring. Firstly, there has been no advice for students’ unions. We exist to support students through their university experience in a multitude of ways; providing key support, advice, events and representation for our members making us a key tenet of the university experience, which is about much more than solely gaining a degree. Through failing to issue guidance to students’ unions, you have hindered our ability to provide these much-needed services for our members.
Secondly, there has been minimal consideration for Higher Education Sport and physical activity and even when sport has been included, the guidance is often unclear. Physical activity is one of the most quintessential ways to support the mental health and wellbeing of our students. Moreover, sport clubs support various causes and communities across the country - to take a few examples; UoN Men’s Hockey Club raised over £16,000 for Movember (with our student groups raising a combined total of £116,716), UoN Football Club provided over 200 school meals for local children over the autumn half term and UoN Cheerleading Club wrapped 976 Christmas presents for charity. This contradicts the narrative that the media has created, which has demonised the student population throughout the pandemic.
Students deserve better: the provision of clearer and more considered guidance would achieve this. On a logical front, schools can play sport as part of their curriculum and extra-curriculum programs as they are educational settings, yet universities, which are also educational settings, are subject to a different set of rules and must follow guidance that is often limiting and unclear.
Thirdly, the lack of clear guidance is also applicable to other types of activity, specifically society events that students’ unions facilitate. These vary from performance arts to religious practices; yet their core purpose is to facilitate sustainable support for students’ mental health via opportunities to network and stay engaged. As seen throughout the pandemic, the arts industry has been greatly impacted by the lack of clear guidance from Government. As a result, those studying arts-based courses and interested in arts-based societies, have been negatively impacted by the constantly changing regulations surrounding their activities. Having something to do outside a student’s course is vital to getting a full university experience.
Refunds for students
Not one student has had the university experience that they expected this year and whilst we know that this is a testing time, the Government has given little to no recompense for the trials that students have been through. £256 million for all universities works out to be £13 per student, yet it costs much more than £9250 a year to attend university, as tuition fees are compounded by the hidden costs of Higher Education. These values do not add up. Furthermore, if institutions were to provide refunds, there would be no institution to return to in the future; they do not have the money nor the capacity to facilitate this.
Budgets have been restructured in response to the pandemic and its consequences, to ensure students could return to COVID secure campuses in September. Since then, finances have been stretched further to assist students and staff with wellbeing concerns, testing, daily incident management and the move to blended provision, all of which were requested by the Government. Whilst we are aware that the Government sets the maximum amount that can be charged for loans, universities have been dependent on this set amount for years. The responsibility lies with the Government to refund students for the hardships they’ve been through.
Pressure on regulatory bodies
Many students are studying courses that require them to meet a standard set of placement hours, competencies' and final exams, all defined by a regulatory body such as the General Medical Council, Royal Institute of British Architects, Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales to name a few. For many, the impact of the pandemic, particularly the first national lockdown during which many placements and in person teaching/practical sessions were cancelled coupled with the resulting regulations, have made it more difficult to achieve those required standards at no fault of either the students or the university. It is paramount that the Government lobbies for and works with these bodies to reassess the requirements in light of the guidance that universities are receiving.
Additionally, there has been a lack of Government guidance for our postgraduate students, particularly our international cohorts and those on research programs. Many students have seen their circumstances change due to COVID restrictions and their research has been compromised as a result. There should be further consultations with UK Research and Innovation to increase funding for our researchers and specific guidance for our postgraduate researchers. This is especially pertinent for our international students, who have had little guidance when making decisions about leaving and returning to the UK along with visa implications.
In sum, the needs of the students we represent are complex and ever-changing. We have outlined many of the issues our students are facing, but this is by no means a comprehensive list: we haven’t touched on the impacts that Brexit may have on student life in the New Year. The Government needs to ‘lead from the front’, and we will continue to push for change. It is time to see you support students.
We look forward to your response.
The Full-Time Officer Committee on behalf of the University of Nottingham Students’ Union
Madeleine Fox | Sam Hawkins | Becca Craven
Union Development Officer | Liberation Officer | Education Officer
Denis Lelin | Sofia Thomas | Josie Jessop
Activities Officer | Community Officer | Sports Officer
Emily Coleman | Abdi Ahmed
Welfare and Wellbeing Officer | Postgraduate Officer