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‘Locked down and locked in’: the pandemic plight of UK university students


In the two months since she arrived at the University of Manchester, Hannah Virgo has been nowhere near a lecture theatre, sports hall or student bar. But she has occupied an empty tower block.

Nearly two weeks ago, the 18-year-old and nine other students sneaked into Owens Park Tower, at the centre of Manchester’s Fallowfield campus, and barricaded themselves inside to protest against the university’s handling of education in the pandemic.

Despite the coronavirus crisis, students were encouraged to start their courses at UK universities on the promise of an undergraduate experience, but many say they have been abandoned with little in the way of financial or mental health support, locked down with strangers as Covid-19 tore through university accommodation, and forced to pay annual tuition fees of £9,250 for lessons over Zoom.

“They moved us here under false pretences,” Ms Virgo says. “Basically, they lied to us so we’d pay our fees.”

With universities still teaching through a second wave of the virus, and a second national lockdown, thousands of UK students appear to be coming to the same conclusion. Some are turning to direct action. In universities from Glasgow to Bristol, hundreds have gone on rent strike, and the occupation at Owens Park was continuing last night despite the university offering to compromise on rent.

Students Hannah Virgo, Lucy Nichol and Lotte Marley at the University of Manchester. Virgo says the university 'moved us here under false pretences. Basically they lied to us so we’d pay our fees'
Students Hannah Virgo, Lucy Nichol and Lotte Marley at the University of Manchester. Virgo says the university ‘moved us here under false pretences. Basically they lied to us so we’d pay our fees’

Manchester university students stand behind a fence erected around their Fallowfield halls of residence. Undergraduates said they felt 'imprisoned' and tore down the fencing
Manchester university students stand behind a fence erected around their Fallowfield halls of residence. Undergraduates said they felt ‘imprisoned’ and tore down the fencing © Christopher Furlong/Getty

A decade on from the student protests against the tripling of tuition fees, the pandemic has exposed deep fissures in the UK’s model of higher education. Dependent on student fees, and with little additional help from the government, critics say universities were driven by financial imperatives to bring students back to campus. They say the decision is typical in a market-driven system in which universities are businesses, bound to view students as fee-paying consumers and prioritise generating income over teaching, research and welfare.

In the past two decades, university funding has been transformed. The UK higher education sector as a whole now relies on student fees for half its £40bn annual income. Universities have become landlords, event managers and caterers in a bid to secure their finances and fund expansion, with students making a large contribution to the economic activity of many UK towns and cities.

Although many universities have large reserves and run healthy surpluses, this left them vulnerable when the pandemic hit. In July, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an influential think-tank, reported that sector-wide losses could amount to nearly half of overall annual income — up to £19bn. Some universities with already precarious finances, it warned, could be pushed towards insolvency.

Dot plot showing that the UK is an outlier on higher education funding distribution

Within weeks of term beginning, thousands of students had been forced to self-isolate, including 1,700 in two accommodation blocks at Manchester Metropolitan, the English city’s second university. By mid-October, case rates in university areas in England were 701 per 100,000, compared with 141 in areas with fewer students, although cases have since fallen.

“If you’re a student, you’ve been sold the idea that you’d have this slightly modified experience,” says Vicky Blake, president of the University College Union, which represents more than 120,000 academics and support staff. “That was never possible. And now students have been locked down, locked in, paying high tuition fees, made to feel like biological weapons.”

‘Taken by surprise’

Manchester university’s Oxford Road campus, on the edge of the city centre, would on an ordinary November afternoon be packed with a significant portion of its 40,000 students. This week only a handful drifted about the libraries and lecture halls.

Over summer, emails from the university promised that staff were working to ensure students could have as normal a university experience as possible. But just a few weeks into term, a lockdown across Greater Manchester meant the majority of face-to-face teaching was cancelled. Now, students are able to book a limited number of spaces in libraries or computer rooms, but facilities such as bars and gyms are closed and only essential practical work, for example in science or medicine, is permitted.

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Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of Manchester university, admits to being 'taken by surprise' by the spread and scale of the virus, but remains confident it was the right decision to bring students back to university
Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of Manchester university, admits to being ‘taken by surprise’ by the spread and scale of the virus, but remains confident it was the right decision to bring students back to university © Joel Goodman/LNP

Students at Manchester Metropolitan University. Within weeks of term beginning, 1,700 students in two accommodation blocks at the university were told to self-isolate
Students at Manchester Metropolitan University. Within weeks of term beginning, 1,700 students in two accommodation blocks at the university were told to self-isolate © Joel Goodman/LNP/Shutterstock

“We shouldn’t have been told to come here,” says Stella, a first-year arts student who declined to give her surname. Although sympathetic to her lecturers, who she says have worked hard to offer online lessons, she is angered by what she describes as poor management, confusing messaging and patchy welfare provision from the university. “They just don’t have a plan,” she says. “Everything is so unclear and just badly communicated.”

When Stella and her flatmates had to self-isolate after one of them tested positive, a care package from the university only arrived three days before the end of the 14-day quarantine. Stuffed with food that was close to its expiry date, it had to be thrown away. The mental health provision promised by the university proved difficult to access, she says, with long waiting lists.

Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of Manchester university, says the institution thought it was fully prepared for the pandemic, having spent “literally millions” on mental health provision and investing heavily in online teaching resources.

However, she admits to being “taken by surprise” by the spread and scale of the virus, which quickly increased from a handful of cases to more than 200 of the university’s students a day after the start of term. But while she says her “sympathy goes out” to those struggling, she remains confident it was the right decision to bring students back to university.

Column chart of In 2019-20 prices (£bn) showing Funding for universities shifts towards fees

While it is too early to know yet whether more students than normal have dropped out during their first term, a survey this month by Opinium and student accommodation provider Unite supports the vice-chancellor’s position. It found 93 per cent of students want to stay on at university and 82 per cent are happy they moved into student accommodation.

“It’s an incredibly difficult position, where we are doing all we can,” Dame Nancy says. “The vast majority of students chose to come, and in our experience to date very few are leaving — most students don’t regret going to university.”

A loss of ‘trust’

During the first wave of the pandemic, when face-to-face teaching was abandoned, many universities feared that students just wouldn’t come back. When the IFS published its forecast in July, it made clear that most universities had healthy enough finances to survive the turmoil. But it warned of losses of up to £4.3bn from reduced international student numbers, and up to £7.6bn from deficits in pension schemes, as well as falls in the conference, catering and student accommodation income streams that are now crucial pieces of universities’ funding jigsaws.

Despite calls for a £2bn bailout, the government offered only limited financial support for struggling universities. Even that was offered in terms of a “restructuring package” that placed stringent conditions on universities. Many vice-chancellors saw the move as symptomatic of a hostility to higher education: in July, education secretary Gavin Williamson scrapped the 1999 target of Tony Blair’s government of getting 50 per cent of young people into higher education, saying it was “not always what the individual and nation needs”.

Students self-isolate in Manchester. The Office for Students, the higher education regulator, has indicated that universities should consider claims for partial refunds over coronavirus restrictions
Students self-isolate in Manchester. The Office for Students, the higher education regulator, has indicated that universities should consider claims for partial refunds over coronavirus restrictions © Christopher Furlong/Getty

A student protests outside Manchester Metropolitan University. Vicky Blake, president of the University College Union, says 'students have been locked down, locked in, paying high tuition fees, made to feel like biological weapons'
A student protests outside Manchester Metropolitan University. Vicky Blake, president of the University College Union, says ‘students have been locked down, locked in, paying high tuition fees, made to feel like biological weapons’ © Molly Darlington/Reuters

Steven Jones, a professor of higher education at Manchester university, says this financial vulnerability and the rush to bring students back was based in part on the reality that UK universities operate more like businesses, competing to attract the students they depend on for income.

Despite widespread protests, in 2012 the government changed how higher education was funded in England. Fees for home students increased to £9,000, mostly in the form of government loans paid off by students over time. A cap on recruitment was later lifted, heralding further growth in the higher education sector, and a scramble to attract students.

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Since then, total funding for higher education per student has increased by 25 per cent, according to the IFS, and the number enrolling on undergraduate degrees has risen by nearly 10 per cent, to 541,000 in 2019.

But it also shifted the source of funding from the state to the individual. Since 2012, the domestic fee income of English higher education increased nearly fourfold, from £2.6bn to £10.1bn. At the same time, direct government support for teaching fell 76 per cent in real terms.

In 2017, for when its most recent comparisons are available, the OECD reported that 79 per cent of tertiary education spending in the UK was from private sources, and 21 per cent from the public purse. But the OECD’s private classification includes loan financing — much of which students will never pay back — and so it likely underestimates the eventual public spend in UK higher education. Still, the figures put it at odds with much of Europe: in Germany, 85 per cent of tertiary education funding is publicly funded, and in France 79 per cent.

Line chart of Income of higher education providers (£bn) showing Funding from other sources increase as grants rise

As UK universities embraced a market agenda, and moved over two decades from being fee-free to among the most expensive in the world, their contract with students “fundamentally changed”, Prof Jones says. During Covid-19, when the government failed to offer a meaningful bailout to universities, the cracks in the model widened.

About 96 per cent of upfront government support to universities is now in the form of loans, according to the IFS, much of which will eventually be paid back by students. However, Jack Britton, associate director at the IFS, says this shift has not necessarily made universities more vulnerable, as grant funding in previous decades was also calculated according to student numbers. 

“Most universities still want to do what’s right for their students, but in a competitive environment they also have to protect their market share and the income that comes with it,” Prof Jones says. “There’s now a suspicion that you just don’t see in countries where universities are more a part of the public sector. We’ve lost trust.”

Refunds ‘would destroy’ universities

In Manchester, that disconnect has been demonstrated in grave and sometimes tragic events, which have inflamed tensions between university management and undergraduates.

In early October Finn Kitson, a first-year student living in the Fallowfield halls of residence, was found dead in his room after suffering from anxiety. An inquest opened in November.

His grieving father, Michael, an academic at Cambridge university, disputed a report that the teenager’s death had not been related to Covid-19: “If you lock down young people because of Covid-19 with little support, then you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety,” he tweeted. Separately, the mental health charity Mind found 73 per cent of students reported their mental health had declined during lockdown.

Line chart showing that participation in higher education has increased dramatically in the past 20 years

In early November, first-year students living in the same halls of residence woke to discover tall metal fencing had been erected around the perimeter of the site. The university said it was intended to protect students from trespassers, but the undergraduates said they felt “imprisoned” and tore down the fencing.

Adding to the feelings of distrust, a week later Zac Adan, a black first-year student, was walking back to his room on the campus when he was stopped by security guards, pushed against a wall and accused, according to his testimony, of “looking like a drug dealer”. After a video of the incident went viral online the university was forced to launch an inquiry. For Marcell Mapp, a third-year student in disaster management, the alleged racial profiling of Mr Adan was personal. “When I saw the video of Zac, I left the room and I just started crying,” he says. “To come to university where I’m supposed to feel safe and to see someone who looks like me banged up against a wall — it really affected me.”

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The unease of students has been echoed by some academics in Manchester. Half a dozen lecturers who spoke to the Financial Times say the pandemic exacerbated a feeling of being sidelined. “There’s a very small group of people making decisions about education who aren’t educators,” says one academic of their experience.

The UCU has argued since the beginning of the pandemic that online teaching should be the default position for universities to guarantee safety, facilitate essential face-to-face teaching and ease the workload. Instead, academics say many universities over promised on what students could expect, then flip-flopped on how staff needed to prepare for face-to-face and online teaching, leaving them “scrabbling around” to plan lessons.

A student deposits her sample as she demonstrates how to take a coronavirus test at a walk-through testing centre at Glasgow Caledonian University
A student deposits her sample as she demonstrates how to take a coronavirus test at a walk-through testing centre at Glasgow Caledonian University © Andrew Milligan/WPA Pool/Getty

Philippa Browning of the UCU says: 'Every university was afraid of losing students, and the idea was to offer face-to-face [teaching] so the students didn’t drop out. Anyone with any sense knew that wasn’t possible — we were already in lockdown'
Philippa Browning of the UCU says: ‘Every university was afraid of losing students, and the idea was to offer face-to-face [teaching] so the students didn’t drop out. Anyone with any sense knew that wasn’t possible — we were already in lockdown’

Philippa Browning, a physics professor and co vice-president of the UCU branch at Manchester, estimates staff would need to work about 20-30 extra hours per week to convert a lecture series to online delivery, and other academics say planning for a combination of online and face to face teaching requires up to six times the workload.

Prof Browning believes a “mistake was made” when the university emailed students to encourage them back. “Every university was afraid of losing students, and the idea was to offer face-to-face [teaching] so the students didn’t drop out,” she says. “Anyone with any sense knew that wasn’t possible — we were already in lockdown.”

In Manchester, a new campaign group, Safer — Student Action for a Fair and Educated Response — is pushing for fees to be cut to £6,162, the rate charged by the Open University, a distance learning institution.

The Office for Students, the higher education regulator, has indicated that universities should consider claims for partial refunds, which will be pursued through the Office for the Independent Adjudicator.

But, says Gavan Conlon, an education researcher at the consultancy London Economics, universities have behaved “entirely rationally”, given the importance of fees, and made statements about what students could expect “in good faith” in the context of the UK government’s “shambolic” response to the pandemic.

Even a one-off refund of £1,000 per student, he estimates, would push institutions into deficit. “It would destroy them,” he says.

That would cost Manchester university about £40m. With an annual income of £1.1bn, Dame Nancy admits that the university is “worried” about the consequences of the pandemic for its finances. Losses in other income streams such as events and on-campus retail have collided with increased costs for online teaching and campus safety, she says.

The UCU’s Ms Blake acknowledges the financial vulnerabilities of universities. But she says managers need to see past those risks to work closely with staff and students if they are to overcome them. “They have failed because they have not engaged with students and staff,” she adds.

Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students, says the anger stirred by the pandemic and the damage done to relations between students and universities will not be forgotten.

“Students are railing not just against what’s going on now, but the whole financial structure of higher education funding in the UK,” she says. “We need a new strategy, thinking about what fully funded education looks like. We cannot accept that this system continues.”





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