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Lancaster is letting its students down by not giving us a safety net

A pandemic is apparently not an extenuating circumstance

As three-quarters of the nation, Lancs included, has been plunged into tougher Covid restrictions ahead of New Year’s Eve celebrations – though let’s face it, there’s not much to celebrate – there is one section of society that barely received a mention in the government’s Covid briefings. You guessed it: students.

Not primary or secondary school students, we’re talking about the students who are integral to the system that generated £95 billion for the economy in 2017. University students are being battered from pillar to post amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, with many of us feeling a measured drop in the quality of our work – and teaching – throughout the pandemic.

We need some reassurance, and if this isn’t going to come from the government then we at least are owed by our universities themselves to be given it. We are owed some confidence in the fact that our futures will not be determined by grades that we might receive due to the fact that we’ve been expected to meet the same workload as previous years, despite us literally living through a pandemic. And yet, our universities are silent. As of yet, Lancaster University has offered no blanket policy to ensure that students need not worry about the detrimental effect of this pandemic on our studies.

If anyone is reading this piece with the attitude of: “Everyone is suffering, stop being a typical student moaning about everything” then please consider the following. For students, our studies are our lives for three years, if not more. Quite literally. We wake up, we go to lectures or seminars, we come home, we eat, we do the reading for our course, we eat again, we do essay work, we watch television, we go to sleep, repeat. In years gone by, we might have been able to go to a pub or a club, and be carefree for a little while; to actually act our age for a little while. Not anymore.

Gone are the days we could actually act like young people

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Our lives have been put on hold. In March, everything collapsed for students. No, I’m not here to argue that we’ve had the worst time in the pandemic; but we certainly haven’t had it easy, and the people we’re supposed to trust to represent our interests are doing nothing to help us.

From March to October, I had no work to do for my course. Nothing at all. And no, I didn’t just sit around through the pandemic. I had a job, and was working from when it was safe to do so; I did an internship through summer, and kept up to date with further work experience. Did I have any academic support? No. Did I receive any useful contact from my department over summer? No.

Admittedly, the world was topsy-turvy and nobody knew what was going on. However, I and nearly 2.5 million other students were paying for a service that we were not receiving. From March to July, what should have been summer term, I received nothing from my university. I had no lectures or seminars, and with my exams being cancelled I had nothing to work towards over those weeks anyway. So for 10 weeks, for which I paid £4,625 – money that I will need to pay back when I graduate. What did I receive in exchange? Nothing.

Video calls are a weak replacement for face-to-face learning

I’m not alone. Every Lancaster student paid £4,000 or more for a summer term in which they received less than was advertised. We have since paid upwards of £2,000 for Michaelmas term 2020 that has included far less academic contact than previous years. If you paid £10 for a full English breakfast that turned out to just be a piece of toast, you’d want your money back. Why’s it unreasonable for us to want the same?

In combination with extra debt that we have undertaken for nothing in return, we are now expected to produce work that is as of high a quality as the work we handed in when we had hours of face-to-face contact with world-class experts, unlimited access to the library, and other on-campus learning facilities that our tuition fees are spent on maintaining. Now, for £9,250 a year (minimum), Lancaster students are being given pre-recorded lectures, and video calls in place of seminars, combined with the same workload as previous years.

Arguably, we have more free time on our hands than ever before, so we should have more time to get work done. But with online seminars and lectures, combined with online submissions for work, and using our computers to complete all of our coursework, we’re spending nearly all day sat in front of a computer screen. Students’ full-time job is to study, and as it stands we have to do everything through a computer screen. In the world of work, if you spend over an hour in front of a computer then your employer needs to give you a break from this. We’re putting our health on the line for our studies.

“What else can universities do? It’s this or nothing” seems to be the general attitude. And you’re right in thinking that! Universities can’t change how they’re teaching us, because they have to stick to restrictions. They can’t do anything about how they’re teaching us, but they can do things about how we’re being assessed.

Deadlines are horrible enough without having to worry about a pandemic

My department has told me not to worry, and that everything will be considered when my coursework is being graded. What does that mean? Is there anything concrete to take from that? Can you quantify that? No. They have told us that we can apply for extenuating circumstances if necessary, as though the whole situation for every student isn’t already an extenuating circumstance?!

I’m being held to the same standard as a student who studied in Lancaster five, maybe 10 years ago, whose biggest worry was waking up without a hangover to make it to campus for their lectures. Now, we’re expected to submit the same amount of work as previous years, on top of our stretched mental and physical health as a result of living through a pandemic.

Personally, I was expected to submit 12,000 words worth of assignments in the final week of Michaelmas term. I did it. I was pleased with what I submitted, and I was proud of myself for doing that. I had also never felt so drained, or in need of the Christmas break, than at the end of this term. One of my modules gave a week-long extension because our resources were not accessible online. When everything we are doing is done online, how are universities allowed to get away with not having accessible resources?

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Why am I, and thousands of other Lancaster students being held to the same standard as previous years? Why am I, and thousands of other Lancaster students not being given concrete guarantees by our university that it will safeguard our futures by giving us some form of safety net here? Why am I, and thousands of other Lancaster students being forced to pay full price for a service that we are not receiving?

No, the world isn’t fair at the moment, and 2020 has been a horrific ride for everyone. No, students haven’t been the worst-hit demographic during this pandemic. Does that mean we are not entitled to receive what we’re paying for? Does that mean we are not entitled to representation?

This government is giving students nothing, in what is arguably our greatest time of need. Our universities are giving us nothing. We need help. Who is going to give it to us if we can’t trust our universities?