Worldwide, universities are adapting and attempting to overcome the threat posed by coronavirus. Having already reached a level bordering on the unsustainable, our higher education industry is at a critical juncture. UK institutions will have to adjust, offering courses with value-for-money online learning in the 2020-21 academic year and beyond. Or, via a combination of cuts and apathy from students, their decline will freefall. The latter is now a very distinct possibility.
In this microcosm of the coronavirus pandemic, the student population of the UK is incredibly vulnerable. What really sets us apart is the impact this crisis will have on the next seventy years of our lives. The Office for Budget Responsibility has revealed higher education as the sector worst hit by coronavirus, which should come as no surprise. The pandemic has only acted as a catalyst, deepening the problems higher education already faced that have been dismissed repeatedly by successive governments and university chancellors. The government has scrapped their aim of getting 50% of school leavers into university, proving that higher education will not be a priority in the economic restructuring that will take place in the wake of the pandemic.
Higher education will not be a priority in the economic restructuring that will take place in the wake of the pandemic
At Warwick, many students have been helped by the introduction of a safety net for grades, a student hardship fund, and rent cuts for first-year students living in halls. Other institutions across the country have followed similar paths. But the government, and universities themselves, are treating our institutions as purely businesses, not prioritising students or innovation in the delivery of word-class education.
From incoming freshers to those graduating into a bleak job market, students are vulnerable in a plethora of ways. But we have had no direct economic relief. Looking at students as a very valuable form of human capital is a good way to consider how the pandemic is affecting us in broad terms. Having an entire year of education scuppered by the pandemic, combined with the ensuing lack of opportunities, does not make for a promising market of future graduates. We have simply been left to fend for ourselves.
Holes that were already present before the pandemic have been torn open
While online learning can work, the disparity between the home conditions of students severely undermines the chances of this replacing in-person teaching. Cerys Evans, a student in Wales, had to take out a £4000 credit card loan to pay for her father’s funeral. This only confirms our government’s neglect of students. Her experience also sheds a light on what has already been exacerbated by Covid-19: the class divide in the UK. I have been fortunate that my local pub is able to employ me on an almost full-time basis and that my time at home has not been troubled or difficult. For many, the reality of nearly six months away from university will have been far from perfect, made worse by the prospect of ever-increasing debt hanging over them. This crisis was unforeseen but the requirement for universities to be actively supporting their student’s mental health and wellbeing was present before lockdown. Yet, this remains largely unfulfilled.
Warwick, and other UK universities, could have done more. Holes that were already present before the pandemic have been torn wide open. Those who really need to be helped by the state are left behind as the economy is put before all.