Students 'ignored' as thousands forced to pay for accommodation they can't use

University students say they feel ‘ignored’ during the pandemic, as many struggle to pay for rent in homes they can’t live in and are not receiving adequate support.

Students told they are frustrated that Boris Johnson failed to offer any guidance or acknowledgement of the difficulties universities face as he plunged the nation into its third national lockdown.

GCSE and A-level pupils have been given alternative opportunities of assessment to help grades. But university students say they have been ‘forgotten’ while struggling with finances, accommodation and mental health concerns – with those from disadvantaged backgrounds hit hardest.

The National Unions of Students (NUS) has called for urgent support, including nationwide no-detriment policies and rent rebates or the opportunity to leave tenancies early.

Vice-President of Higher Education, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, said students ‘deserve better’ and have been ‘regularly ignored, lied to and blamed’, adding that rapid investment is needed for online teaching and mental health services.

Despite many students unable to step foot on campus for a lecture in months – or ever for the new cohort – undergraduates are still required to pay up to £9,250 in annual fees.

‘It’s a running joke among students that we are paying for the most expensive streaming service in the world,’ said Jacob Drew, a history student at the University of Plymouth.

The 24-year-old, who is studying a masters qualification and therefore granted less support from Student Finance, worked all summer to afford a room he has not lived in for more than three months.

Jacob went back to his family home in Weymouth, Dorset, for a reading week at the end of October and then the November lockdown hit. But in early December, students were told to return to family homes ahead of Christmas by the Department for Education (DfE).

And the latest lockdown rules mean it is now illegal for Jacob and thousands of other students to travel back to accommodation close to university, despite many paying up to £100 or more a week in private contracts.

Jacob vented his frustration in a tweet which has been shared tens of thousands of times, writing: ‘Places I legally can’t go: my £93 a week room at university.

Alice Oladipupo, who is training to become a barrister, echoed Jacob’s concerns and said students are paying over the odds for reduced services.

‘My masters cost £20,000 and I’ve not seen the inside of a lecture building,’ the 21-year-old told ‘I don’t know what the campus looks like because my university keeps pushing back in-person tutorials and lectures.

‘I’m not getting the quality of teaching and learning that I deserve, but I’m still paying the amount I would’ve been paying before the pandemic.’

The City, University of London student said while A-level and GCSE students have had grades determined from mock exams and in-class assessments, university students have been offered no help.

A lack of resources is making it yet harder to produce the same quality work, she said, as closed libraries mean many do not have access to vital reading materials, emails go ignored, and lectures are being cancelled and not rescheduled.

She added: ‘Extenuating circumstances with most universities usually give you about a week extension, when we’ve been in this pandemic for months.’

‘It’s horrible we’re not regarded when these qualifications determine the rest of your life,’ she added.

Alice also raised concerns about students struggling to work from home in ‘negative family environments’, while she herself had to work through a difficult period writing a dissertation while her sister was severely ill in hospital.

She added: ‘There’s zero consideration for the impact that the pandemic and lockdown is having on people’s mental health.

‘Especially when the suicide rates in universities are so high in the first place. You would think that the Government would give some sort of guidance to universities and students about how we’re living, how we’re coping.’

A City spokesperson said: ‘At City, we have had to adapt the delivery of our teaching so the majority is online, with some small group teaching in person. Like other universities, our plans for the start of this term have had to change as a result of the national lockdown – we know this will be disappointing for many of our students but the health and safety of our students and staff has to be our priority.’ 

They said the university said campus remained open so students could access the library, labs and study spaces, while learning and support services are available online. They urged students with concerns to ‘get in touch directly so that we can offer individual support’ and highlighted their counselling and mental health services.

Second year psychology student Kiera Murrell, 20, also took her frustrations to social media, sharing a teary image of herself which has been shared hundreds of thousands of times.

The ‘exhausted and drained’ University of Bournemouth student said: ‘I have spent my afternoon crying into a Terry’s chocolate orange because I have received not a single bit of support since university moved online in March, just like everybody else on my course.’

‘Please tell me how I’m supposed to improve or better my work with absolutely 0 feedback apart from a few sarcastic emails from lecturers telling us to figure it out,’ she added.

Kiera said she shared the post after becoming so deflated she didn’t want to continue with university anymore – something she had worked ‘so hard’ for.

She said the wellbeing centres for universities ‘need to be doing more to check on students and make sure students know what support is out there’.

Speaking about the response to her post, she said: ‘I think it speaks so much volume that thousands of students can relate and understand the struggles. I’m just so glad it did get the response it did, because students’ voices are finally being heard.’

A spokesman for Bournemouth University urged struggling students to contact their academic adviser, adding: ‘Throughout the pandemic, significant support has been put in place to support students and their learning. Messages have been sent to students on a very regular basis and a range of information and guidance is available on the BU website and student portal.’

Like many students, Hannah Clements-Patrick, 19, is unable to go back to her university accommodation and cannot get out of her private rental contract in London.

The second-year Classics student at King’s College London is living at home with her mother in Sheffield, and while she would usually help her with bills, she said it is impossible to pay two sets of rent.

‘I think many students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are really struggling,’ Hannah said. ‘We were told in September that face-to-face teaching would go ahead and so many of us secured private accommodation. 

‘I’m now stuck in a rental contract for a flat I cannot live in and expected to produce the same quality and quantity of work as any other time, despite the terrible circumstances and having difficulty accessing reading material. 

‘Last year most universities introduced no-detriment policies and provided additional support but now – despite being in the exact same situation – none of this has been provided.’

The NUS’ Ms Gyebi-Ababio said in a statement: ‘The government’s inability to deal with the pandemic has once again led us to a sadly necessary national lockdown.

‘The impact of yet another lockdown on students’ education and welfare will be severe, and ongoing disruption means students are struggling to make ends meet. Students need substantial support.’

The Department for Education said:

‘We understand this has been a very difficult time for students, which is why we have prioritised their education and wellbeing throughout the pandemic. Recently we announced up to £20 million to help students most in need of financial support in these exceptional circumstances.

‘Universities are expected to maintain quality and academic standards and the quantity of tuition should not drop. They should seek to ensure that all students, regardless of their background, can access their studies remotely. We also encourage landlords to be fair and consider students’ interests in their decisions about rent charges.

‘We have worked closely with the Office for Students, providing up to £3 million to fund the mental health platform Student Space in response to the pandemic, which works alongside university and NHS services.’

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