Dear Government Ministers
As Sabbatical Officers and lead student representatives at the University of Roehampton, we are writing to you in your authority over the Higher Education System in England to request that you provide more adequate support and guidance for students who have been impacted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the needs of University Students have been overlooked and the guidance provided in government briefings has often lacked detail of many aspects of student life. Tuition fees, rent payments, graduate opportunities and the more recent announcement proposing the alterations to London Weighting have all subsequently resulted in a decline in students’ mental health and wellbeing as we have been navigating our way through the ongoing pandemic.
The shift towards blended learning, and the latest lockdown, has forced the majority of students to learn solely via online platforms. Whilst it is still possible to maintain high-quality pedagogy through online delivery, the blended learning approach can cause considerable implications for students who might not have access to suitable working conditions and equipment. We have worked with the University of Roehampton in recent months as it has committed to supporting students by providing laptops, suitable spaces to work and a no-detriment policy which applies to their academic studies. However, we still fear that studying during a global pandemic will cause long-term effects to students’ education, graduate outcomes and overall well-being. The current level of support for university students from government limits the extent to which universities can address these matters. There are many benefits and experiences of being at university that cannot be replaced with online means. Furthermore, UK home and EU students are still being expected to pay tuition fees of £9250. International students, many of whom are not in the same country as their University, are paying at least £10,000 but are not receiving the experience that was promised before enrolling.
One aspect of university that cannot be replaced online is the practical elements of performance-based and placement-based subjects. Online learning has resulted in students losing the ability to easily share ideas with like-minded people and gain hands-on experience in a group setting. Many students have suffered in this regard and there is some concern from students that online delivery could be the future of these modules. In addition to this, students are concerned that those who have superior knowledge of utilising online platforms will have an advantage over those who have limited experience and skills when producing work which, in some cases now requires them to plan, record and edit videos. Students are worried that a lack of specialist IT knowledge will be reflected in their grades and that the loss of practical experience will affect their graduate outcomes when searching for jobs in an already precarious and highly competitive environment.
Additionally, as a result of government regulations, a large number of students were, for a long period of time this academic year, unable to return to their term-time addresses meaning they have been paying for accommodation that they are unable to use. In response to this, our University issued a rebate to all students who are currently under a full-time, on-campus accommodation contract for the 2020/21 academic year following the announcement of the third national lockdown. Although this rebate gesture was well received by many and supported by RSU, it is evident that the sum of money offered does not fully reflect the amount of time that many students have been spending in their accommodation and highlights where government support for universities could have been stronger. Students who live off-campus, renting properties through local Landlords, have not been eligible to receive any direct financial support, even though they are still bound to their contracts. On behalf of our student membership, we ask that you use your authority to financially support students across the country as a result of their current circumstances. This could be in the form of subsidised rent, suspended increases in rent for the next year or entirely waiving rent costs. This would contribute to an improvement in students’ current anxiety around the financial impacts of the current crisis.
The recent announcement regarding a potential alteration to funding for Higher Education Institutions in London (London Weighting) has understandably caused some uncertainty and confusion within our student membership. The University of Roehampton is a small institution compared with others in the sector with a total population of approximately 9,500 students. This means that any changes to the current London Weighting for Education will have a significant impact on our University. The University of Roehampton has a high intake of students who are the first in their family to attend University. If the London Weighting is lowered, our University will severely struggle to maintain the level of quality of which it currently delivers, which will have a detrimental effect to all students, but particularly those from this group.
Due to the unprecedented circumstances that students have faced since Spring 2020, we are asking you as Government representatives to acknowledge the overall impact that COVID has caused for them. As part a wider collective movement, our counterpart students’ union’s fear that the current student experience will be detrimental to future employment and graduate outcomes. Students of the 2020/21 cohort are concerned that there will be a stigma attached to their achievements and that employers might associate their overall classifications with COVID grade inflation as a result. We would like you to consider what short- and long-term safety net you can provide for current students after the completion of their degree to ensure that they are not impacted negatively in the months and years ahead.
These are only some of the concerns which have been raised by our students over the past nine months, but we hope it provides you with a substantial level of detail by outlining the key themes that we would like you to recognise as being highly important.
We hope that you take the time to read this letter and respond to us with the actions you will take to provide a level of support to University students. We would appreciate it if you could act upon our requests to help relieve students’ anxieties around their financial stability, graduate outcomes and mental health, and preserve the globally leading UK Higher Education sector after the difficult year we have just seen.
We look forward to hearing back from you.
Farrah Black (President)
Lauryn Fleming (Vice President of Education)
Nicolo Sodaro (Vice President of Community and Welfare)