‘Why students aren’t getting furloughed’: A response to the universities minister’s decision

Barely any students have access to the introduced ‘hardship fund’

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan appeared on Good Morning Britain yesterday to shed light on student’s situation during the pandemic. She explained that the government had pledged millions of pounds to helping university students, however most of us have not seen a penny of this.

The government have supposedly “urged” universities to reimburse students but universities are under no legal obligation to do so. For business matters, the government has taken a very interventional approach to funding; Piers Morgan highlighted how the government have provided a furlough scheme for businesses in which employees receive 80 per cent of their wages.

Susanna Reid reads out a message sent to her by a desperate student, “We’ve been coaxed into paying private rental contracts in July, being told teaching would be in person, for it all to go online and we are stuck paying hundreds of pounds for houses we cannot go in… I am paying £600 rent to a landlord for a property I have not lived in since September. The Government have completely ignored us.”

This situation is shared by many students, why should we be paying for accommodations that we cannot go back to? Why are the government not providing us with the same support that was so generously shown during the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme?

Although many student accommodations have either given a reduction in rent or completely waved it, people who live in these are typically only freshers or international students, the vast majority of university students, such as myself, will live in privately rented houses.  However, in light of government restrictions, it is now illegal for us to return to these houses. Despite this, we still have a legal obligation to pay our rent. How is this fair?

In the interview Donelan claimed to be keeping the issue of private rentals “under review” and that they were “monitoring the situation”, however she had no response when questioned to what that approach actually entailed. She stated that “hardship funding” would be accessible to students through their university, however this would only be available for a small portion of students who “most need it”. However, as Piers Morgan suggests, this is “barely any'” of us, and most have not received financial support.

As a second year student, I signed a contract to my student house in December 2019, before I knew corona to be anything but a type of beer. With the exception of first years, students went to university before the pandemic occurred, we started our degrees with no knowledge of corona, yet our entire university experience has been destroyed because of it, with no compensation in sight.

In terms of university fees, we are still expected to pay the entire £9250, a sum that will in-debt us for a number of years.  Donelan says that these fees are going towards “upkeeping university buildings” and “labour costs”, but how can we enjoy this from miles away? Even though we are paying the exact same as we would without the pandemic, all of our classes are online, we do not have access to the same resources, and many internships that can help further careers are no longer available.

Students who do practical subjects such as Geography are conducting field trips over zoom, Biology students are doing their degree without practicals.  Students who were promised a year abroad or a semester abroad have had to last minute find accommodation after their placements were cancelled with no reimbursement for flights the were already booked.

There is no way the government can even begin to suggest that we are getting the level of teaching that we deserve. Donelan’s answer to this is that we should raise an argument to contest our fees with our universities ourselves, but somehow I don’t know how 19-21 year olds would be able to win a legal battle against such a powerful entity.

University students have been constantly criminalised and used as a scapegoat by the government to blame the spread of the pandemic, and students in private rental accommodation are yet to receive financial compensation for literally not being legally allowed to stay in our houses. As Piers Morgan said, “You cannot possibly charge these students full whack – it is just not fair, it is not moral, and it is not ethical”.

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• UoN gives rent refund to students unable to return to campus