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In the turmoil of the Covid-19 crisis, students must not bear the brunt of universities’ woes

  • 17 April 2020
  • By Luke Cavanaugh

This guest blog has kindly been contributed by Luke Cavanaugh, undergraduate at the University of Cambridge.

Covid-19 will confront the British higher education system with as large an economic and structural challenge as it has ever seen, but its students must not bear the brunt of the financial consequences.

A few weeks ago, as I approached the end of Lent Term of my second year at university, all eyes were on coursework deadlines and the beginning of the exam revision season – and of course the end of term parties that usually go along with them. The situation now, forced to return home for an indefinite timeframe and with exams and internships postponed and cancelled, could not be more different.

Universities for the most part remain in the news for the right reasons. From testing kits at the University of East Anglia to mask production at Queen’s Belfast, vaccine development at the University of Cambridge to the cross-institutional Genomics UK Consortium project aiming to analyse the genetic code of Covid-19 in the hope of tracking its spread and mutations across the country, higher education institutions continue to be at the forefront of the fight against the virus. But they must not lose sight of their students.

There is little doubt that the economic fallout from Covid-19 for universities, as for many sectors of the economy, will be unprecedented. In Australia, where the beginning of the virus coincided with the start of the university term, the International Education Association warned of a A$6 billion to A$8 billion hit if Chinese students could not attend first term.

This is likely to be replicated with the international student population of the UK if normal business has not resumed by September. Staff on fixed-term contracts, including visiting lecturers, researchers and student support workers, are already being made redundant across the country, or being told that their employment may be cut short. As the crisis continues, the research-focused models of many Russell Group universities in particular, often subsidising their work with the fees of international students, are likely to come under increasing strain.

Students must not be the ones that suffer because of this. The ‘crisis cohort’ who graduated in 2008 continued to suffer up to a decade later, and there is little reason to suggest that anything will be different this time round. It is estimated that a ten per cent fall in enrolments from eastern Asia this autumn could cost British universities £200m in lost tuition fees alone. Although for many students the announcement that maintenance loans will arrive as planned is a relief, the medium-to-long term ramifications of student loans need to be rethought too.

Up and down the country teaching is being moved online and my own Faculty of English, while demonstrating an admirable concern for student welfare in their response to examinations, have essentially declared the Summer Term a ‘spare term’ for preparatory reading for next year. But we are the lucky ones. Finalists who have seen huge chunks of their teaching time this year disrupted first by strikes, and then the virus, now face the real risk of graduating with an unclassified degree, or one not wholly reflective of their three years at university.

What students need is a centralised response on higher education matters. From my own experience, a lack of coordination between individual faculties, colleges, and a central university body has led to a raft of student petitions and open letters directed at a whole host of different groups within the university. Elsewhere, it is not clear how national petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of students will be implemented, and the pitfalls of having independent faculties and autonomous universities are becoming more apparent day-by-day. To tackle this, an adaptation of a centralised higher education crisis group constructed out of vice-chancellors across the country, and addressing the strategic priorities for the UK university system as a whole, could be a crucial step in responding to Covid-19. Certainly, a group like this could form the basis of a constructive relationship with the NUS and other student groups, ensuring that neither students nor universities feel isolated as fallout from the virus intensifies.

The lack of a coordinated response has only exacerbated what the same Policy Exchange report in February found to be a crucial challenge for a universities, the fact that ‘the sector as a whole is fragmenting as its individual institutions need to be increasingly commercial and act more competitively within worsening funding constraints’. This is perhaps most clear in admissions, where a scramble to secure domestic students has seen thousands of conditional grades converted to unconditional offers on the UCAS website. The government’s decision to temporarily ban universities from changing their offers to applicants to unconditional in order to profit from the uncertainty around Covid-19 is welcome. But the underlying issue only highlights the fact that the best way for universities to look after their students is to cooperate with other institutions, acting as a unified higher education system rather than adopting the competitive approach taken to admissions thus far. If each university is allowed to recruit as many students as they like as quickly as possible, then the financial implications of Covid-19 will only be exacerbated for those institutions not as quick off the mark and their students will suffer.

So, as students continue to campaign on issues like exam arrangements while having to accept a sudden loss of independence in moving back home and coming to terms with cancelled assessments, internships and years abroad, the uncertainty around the UK higher education sector might be best quelled with a centralised government response outlining greater cooperation and transparency. A joint task force ought to be set up to ensure a level playing field and created a unified academic body with whom student parties such as the NUS can negotiate. Furthermore, a government call for greater transparency in universities detailing how tuition fees are being spent, including publishing value-for-money statements, will work to tackle the opinion of 75 per cent of students that not enough information is provided, and ensure constructive dialogues between universities and their students. At the very least, the government must now continue to address the competitiveness and lack of clarity that has so far appeared the order of the day.

As the world cries out for a period of cooperation rather than isolation, and universities work together more and more on research, their students are desperate for this collaboration to extend to them. Likely to graduate into a hostile job market, they cannot be made to suffer the immediate consequences of the pandemic either financially or through a loss of academic rigour. A more cooperative appraisal of how the university system as a whole should adapt to the crisis and beyond, and a greater level of accountability for each institution, is certain to bring about greater levels of fairness and equality in these difficult and trying times.

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