Of all the things that I thought might bring about
reformation to the university system, a global pandemic wasn’t one of them.
Relegated to working at home, with piss poor imitations of lectures, seminars
and exams, I myself am angry at the way university students are being treated
currently, and how we have been treated in the past years.
To begin with, university is no longer a system of gaining
knowledge, it is not a system of self-betterment. You pay a fee to gain a
qualification to get a job, I’m not the first to state this and I know that.
What’s worse is that students have been held at metaphorical gun point, either
take the overpriced and ridiculous hurdles it takes to get into university, or
don’t gain a degree, which leaves a blaring hole in your CV. Universities in
essence can do whatever they want, what are you going to do? Leave? With no
degree? Have to start over at a different place with the little money you have
left. It makes me furious that students are paying so much for so little. I am a
case study in this, because during these times without lectures or seminars,
what really am I paying for?
I do a degree in undergraduate English Literature at a good university, one which falls in that middle tier of
most universities in the UK. I chose it for the reason that I reasoned that it
fulfilled my needs to live in a city which had culture and a vibrant student
life, while also being fairly impressive in terms of academics. I purposely
chose to not attend a university which would feel like school, such as
Oxbridge, or its imitation sector (Durham, Exeter, St. Andrews, York) My
university falls into the average of many within the UK, which leads me to
believe that many are handling the pandemic the way mine is, namely, poorly. I
like working, I enjoy my degree, I enjoy reading and analysing and writing
essays. I like the academic and social aspect to lectures and seminars and
meetings, and I hoped that these things would be somehow replicated while under
lockdown. To my surprise, thinking that with the 9,250 pounds I spend on my
degree a year they could afford to invest some money in this process, what I
have received in actuality can barely be called teaching.
In a normal week at my university I would have a couple of
lectures a day, a few seminars, all of which culminate with end of year exams,
a chance to exemplify and show off all the skills and knowledge I’ve developed
that year. In its place, I have online
lectures and ‘discussion boards’. It’s not the lectures I hold an issue with, I
find them easy to do and not that different to a normal lecture, it’s recorded
and played alongside the slides and I take notes as normal, no complaints
there. It is the seminars that I loathe, that make me maddeningly angry, or
rather it’s the lack of seminars which makes me furious. My degree is
subjective largely, its built on discussion and the swapping of ideas, bouncing
off other pupils and discussions.
But how could this be replicated under lockdown? Be
Well, we could do zoom calls with our seminar leaders as a
group maybe? Or have meetings with our module leaders on zoom personally to
discuss the material one on one so they can check our understanding and
knowledge more in depth. There are options, but my university has rejected all
of these options in favour of ‘discussion boards’. The title is misleading,
they aren’t discussion boards, because you can’t discuss things on them. We are
encouraged to ‘start threads’ to discuss the material with our fellow students,
which fails because no one wants to be the person to start a thread, and if you
do no one responds to it, in preference of just answering the questions posed
by the seminar leader at the top of the page and leaving it at that. This isn’t
a complaint against my fellow students, the whole process is clunky and awkward
and terribly designed, and I find it ridiculous that as students we are
expected to just interact with each other and somehow arrive at the ideas and
themes by ourselves.
But university is about independent learning you snowflake
millennial! You’re just upset because people aren’t holding your hand through
Yes you are completely right my boomer friend, university is
about independent learning, trust me I know about independent learning when I
dragged myself tooth and nail from a D average at Sixth Form to an A/A* average
in my A2 exams, I know how to think and function and develop thoughts by myself.
What makes me angry is that I am paying for a service, University is a service
I am paying for, and right now I am not receiving that service in full and that
makes me mad because if you spent money on a service you were no longer
receiving you too would be mad. If you paid a Netflix subscription in full, but
then found you could only watch half of every TV show and movie on there, you
would ask for your money back as well! This is not my generation being angry
that we are not being coddled or having our hands held throughout this, we are
angry because older generations have transformed university into a commodity,
and now we are paying for a commodity that we are no longer receiving. I am not
paying to teach my classmates and start discussions with them, I am paying for
a seminar leader to guide and lead the discussion so that the conversation is
productive and allows us to arrive at ideas in a way that helps us develop our
critical thinking skills and ultimately help me get a better degree, and use
these transferable skills in future jobs and my career.
Well this is a difficult time! You don’t know what the
people who teach you are going through at home or their ability to work, you’re
being selfish by asking that they keep doing their jobs!
I understand that this is a difficult time for everyone,
including both students and staff. However, I don’t think I am being
unreasonable in asking for the minimum, when they are asking the minimum from
us. I’m not saying that they have to be perfect, just that they be reasonable.
I’ll use an example from a fairly recent interaction I had with my head of
department. It was a Tuesday morning, 10:50am and I was logging onto my
discussion board in order to complete my ‘seminar’ this week. At my university,
if you don’t respond to these things during the allotted time during that day,
its marked as an unauthorised absence which is obviously not a good thing. So I
log on, and sit there waiting for the link to the discussion board to be
posted, thinking it’ll ‘go live’ at 11 and then I can get going with the
process. It’s important to note that prior to this I have heard little to
nothing off of my seminar leader, aside from a confusing email at the beginning
of lock down in which he rambles a fair bit and doesn’t clearly explain how its
all going to work. So I wait, 11 am comes and goes and I keep refreshing the
page but nothing comes up, I’m panicked at this point, I don’t ‘miss’ seminars
and I try and maintain a good record with my professors and lecturers. So I
email the head of the English department, clearly stating that I am on the web
page that I need to be on, in my seminar tutors folder, but I can’t find the
link to the discussion board. I get a response back fairly quickly, a fairly
snippy email asking whether or not I’ve checked my seminar leaders folder.
I am understandably quite mad, as I have already stated
clearly that I have. She asks me to provide ‘proof’ in the form of a
screenshot, and so I do. Some time passes, and she informs me that it was an
issue with the settings on the web page, but she feels she can’t change them
because its my seminar leaders job. Now I’m even more angry, because surely as
the head of a department she should be able to change settings if it means I
would be able to ‘attend’ my seminar. By the time the seminar is over, and the
‘discussions’ have taken place, I finally get the link and am able to post some
stuff. It was stressful and infuriating.
My point through all of this is to not shame my professors,
they are people with real lives and difficulties, and are obviously going
through the same issue that we all are, what I need from them is transparency.
If they aren’t going to be able to respond to emails, then tell us that, if
there’s been an emergency or issue, tell us that you might not be able to what
you normally do. The issue I take is not with the difficulties and growing
pains of the system that clearly had to be thrown together in a rush due to
these highly unprecedented circumstances, its with the lack of communication in
talking about these difficulties. The inability to effectively communicate with
the student body to me comes across as laziness and disregard for the needs and
wants of the students is what maddens me.
I understand that could be frustrating, but surely
everything will be back to normal next year though?
Here’s the thing, I don’t want things to return to normal
next year, this pandemic has just exposed the underlying truths of the
university system that already were there. Things such as the complete apparent disregard that universities hold for the welfare and education of their students. My university, while I love being there and overall have has a very positive experience with, has fucked up numerous times and in ways that have deeply hurt me, all of which happened in pre-lockdown. I’ll run through some examples.
Pre-lockdown I was deeply struggling with my mental health, chronic insomnia and an inability to sleep had driven my mental state to the edge and I felt myself tipping over. In a terrible habit I had gotten into, in which ‘too reset my sleep schedule’ I would stay up all night and the next day, I would do this several times a month and I was suffering really badly. I wasn’t eating well, oscillating between eating too much, and then barely eating for days, I hated every aspect of myself and felt uncomfortable in my mind and body. This culminated in the day that I should have been revising for upcoming exams, I hadn’t slept but was going to walk down to the library and get some work done. While walking down I fell down a mental spiral of intense self-hatred and loathing, everything from my personality to how my clothes felt on my body made me feel awful, and in the 15 minute walk to the library I was close to tears. I was outside the Student Union when I began having a fully-fledged panic attack, something I hadn’t experienced in years. Panicked and hyper-ventilating I rang my closest friend who talked me down and told me to go find someone to talk, luckily I was right next to student support services. Still trembling and obviously shaken I walked into the student support services, which was completely empty aside from the one woman working behind the counter. I was still so shaken I could barely talk, and while she was kind, there was no effort to help my condition. She told me that I would need to fill out a form and they would arrange an appointment in which I could be given a diagnosis.
Well what’s wrong with that? Surely that’s what you wanted?
Oh my poorly educated friend, no that’s not what I wanted. I wanted someone to talk me off the ledge I was on and calm me down, not have a form shoved in my face when I was clearly in no position to organize an appointment, given that I was dizzy from hyperventilating and obviously pale and shaken. I also know from personal experience that receiving therapy or a meeting takes MONTHS of scheduling, scheduling a meeting for 2 months wouldn’t make me feel safer in that moment, and all the talk of diagnosis and treatment that was being thrown at me felt overwhelming and scary. So I left, with a pamphlet on the health services complicated website and went and sat down for a while.
But that’s a one off?
Well no actually. You know personal tutors? The people that are meant to help and guide you through academic and personal difficulties, well my first year tutor just… didn’t. In fact I don’t feel he cared one jot about me or the struggles I went through. For some context, my parents live abroad in Egypt, and I have a very small support system in the UK, meaning that a lot of the time during holidays and time off Uni, I’m alone when my friends go back to stay with their families, and living alone at Uni in first year, I found this challenging and difficult. In a scheduled personal meeting, which only take 15 minutes, we talked about how I was doing academically and that was fine. He then asked if there was anything else I wanted to talk about, and I told him that I was concerned about my Christmas plans, explaining that due to my father working for a Muslim business he didn’t get a lot of time off for Christmas, and that I was worried about spending a month alone in my house in Sheffield. His response?
‘well… that’s not really my area is it?’
I felt myself shrink down into myself, embarrassed and upset. I nodded and left, but the words stuck to me long after the meeting was over.
These two different stories for me, paint a larger overarching picture. It’s the abandonment of the students that they proclaim to care about. Not only academically but also personally. Not all universities are like this, not all personal tutors are like (bless my personal tutor this year, she’s a sweetheart), but they all play into the idea that in the priorities of universities, students aren’t at the forefront of their ideas. This can be seen in the increase in grad-students leading modules, as opposed to qualified lecturers, in the lack of funding for mental health systems, the poor online infrastructure, the treatment of students by staff and university workers.
Which brings me to my final point, that the Universities now have the AUDACITY to ask us to pay 9,250 pounds for next years probably online degree, with many universities confirming that next semester will be entirely online. It’s one thing to not refund already budgeted money, but another entirely different thing to expect students to continue to pay full price for a degree that their not entirely getting. It makes me furious to think that I’m going to have to do it, I’ve already signed my lease for next year, I can’t just take a year out and come back when things are normal. Which is why I’m supporting all the students who were meant to start university next year postponing for a year.
Force the university to step up its game for what it provides student, make them prove to all of us where our money is going and how it benefits us. As a student you are paying to experience life as a student. You are paying for those face to face lectures and meetings, you are paying for the university lecture halls you will sit in, you’re paying to use their amenities, libraries, health services, club nights, socials, societies, you are paying and it is okay to not want to go when you won’t receive them. Don’t feel guilty for not going, for missing out for ‘frivolous’ reasons, because you want to have the full freshers experience. When paying for a full packet experience, you are allowed to expect the full package. Hopefully, you will have a better experience than me.