I’m a Durham Fresher and I’m fed up with this now.
University is officially my worst lockdown purchase.
The class of 2023’s Freshers’ experience was never going to be full of bar crawls, Klute, and flat parties. However, we did at least expect sincerity, logic, and integrity from an educational institution.
But this assumption was naïve. At best we have been treated like customers and at worst like targets of a government-approved scam.
Before we had signed our accommodation contracts, Durham did not specify how many in-person hours we would receive, instead promising a vague ‘blended learning experience.’ Personally that ‘learning experience’ translated to 80 minutes in a lecture hall in Michaelmas. Many of my friends have never stepped foot on campus.
Some freshers were locked down within days, including mini ‘college lockdowns’. Although this has affected all year groups, while older year groups were with their friends, freshers were placed in quarantine with complete strangers. Despite being charged £215 a week for catered accommodation, the university had to apologise after freshers at St Mary’s College were given food boxes consisting of crisps and pot noodles. Welfare support is available to students but is generally limited to Zoom calls. Obviously, this is understandable in the middle of a pandemic. However, it is hard to argue that this is an environment in which students have been fully supported in both welfare and academic terms.
And these conditions have consequences. In September there was a student death every week. Just last term at least 39 ambulances were called out to university accommodation for suicide and self-harm attempts. And these figures are only from the 13 universities that record this information.
Despite clearly being in crisis, university students have been side-lined time and time again in this crisis– a fact that is especially surprising considering that the student population in the UK numbers 2.4 million.
These 2.4 million people have been neglected in government conferences, and Boris Johnson’s January lockdown announcement sparked confusion among my friends as universities were not mentioned at all. We discovered that we were not to return, not from the Prime Minister, but from a screenshot of a government document circulating on Twitter.
While holidays and haircuts have been refunded as a result of lockdown, Durham continues to insist that they are still offering the same ‘educational experience that is accessible, inclusive, and of high quality ’: hence, the monetary value of our education has apparently not changed.
Clearly, normal access to libraries, study spaces, lectures, discussions with other students, networking events, etc. are dispensable. According to Durham, a recording of my lecturer reading out a PowerPoint is just as good.
Seemingly Durham does not care about us as students – but it is also laughable to assume they even value us as paying customers. No other business could act like universities have done in this crisis – having us paying full-price for a service we are unable to access.
Why is this allowed?
The media’s depiction of us certainly plays its role. News footage of Manchester Metropolitan students locked in their accommodation should have been the warning sign. Cameras chose to linger on the humorous signs, asking onlookers to ‘send beer’ rather than the facts. A cohort of teenagers had been coerced into paying for a service and accommodation to access it. They had then been locked in, unable to access their university’s facilities, as to no-one’s surprise, communal living in the middle of a pandemic, was unsafe.
Uniformly labelled as entitled middle-class children, we are the ‘snowflake’ generation expecting special treatment – enabling the government to ignore us. While some at Durham live up to this stereotype, it is not the reality.
More than a third of students work during term-time to afford university and over a 1/5 have two jobs. The 2020 cohort also encompasses more of those who lack the traditional higher education background. In 2020, 20.3% of those who received free school meals gained acceptance to university – in comparison with 13.2% in 2011.
Through their claims that Zoom lectures encompass a ‘high-quality’ education, it is evident that Durham does not care about us as students – but they cannot forget we are customers. If Durham wants to act like a business, not an educational institution, they should at least offer some customer service.