Those who know me will be able to attest to my ‘mixed’ feelings regarding France’s Emmanuel Macron. Having studied his media performance, as well as looking at some of his policies, he comes across to me as rather arrogant and out-of-touch – he has even earnt the moniker ‘president of the rich’ in France.
However, I do have to declare, somewhat begrudgingly, my respect for one of Macron’s latest initiatives. On 20 January, the BBC reported that students in France were going on protest to draw attention to the ‘rising mental health problems’ they were understandably suffering from as a result of the pandemic. Just a day later, they wrote about Macron’s announcement that students would be receiving two meals a day for one euro (88p). I don’t think I’ve heard of any faster turnaround.
Okay, the BBC was slightly late to the party. A quick perusal of the French press shows that this unrest was being talked about around 12 January, and on 15 January, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced the creation of a ‘mental health cheque’. This would ensure that students who are unable to have meetings with university wellbeing services would not have to pay an advance on consultations with local psychologists. Instead, the CROUS (Centre régional des œuvres universitaires et scolaires), which in short terms, is the student welfare organisation in France, would front the bill.
I would suggest (on this rare occasion) that the British Government takes a leaf out of Macron’s book and pays attention to its marginalised youth
So action was being taken to help French students a while ago. Having established that, let’s come back to Macron. In a meeting with students from Paris-Saclay University, Macron announced that one euro meals previously available to students on a bursary would be opened up to all students – including international students. He also announced something similar to Castex’s proposal – a psychological cheque that would allow students to access mental health services more easily. This would come in the form of a voucher that students could redeem when they deemed it necessary.
I think the most impressive thing about this was the way Macron spoke about students. He said that ‘students should have the same rights as wage earners’ – an attitude that our own government doesn’t seem to share. When Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown on 4 January, he didn’t even mention universities. I remember scrambling around, messaging friends to try and figure out whether we could go back or not. Many students were faced with the decision of whether to get back or not, with some rushing to get back in one day. And don’t even get me started on the Manchester scandal, where students woke up to find fencing around their halls. Or even the fact that the government refused to rule out locking students in halls over Christmas.
If you want to start a narrative of ‘we’re all in this together’, you’ve got to get the ‘all’ bit right first
But I think the coup de grâce here is the unanswered question that looms over higher education – are students going to see a refund of the £9250 we’re all paying in tuition fees? According to the Office for Students, the university regulator, this is a problem for individual universities. Warwick has thankfully issued a rent waiver for students unable to get back to their accommodation – but a refund on fees is less clear. Reading University has already announced that they would not reduce, nor would they refund tuition fees, claiming that the university continues “to offer a high-quality learning experience” and “good support”.
If you ask me, if it’s possible to get refunds on your holiday, the same level of protection should be offered to university students. I don’t know about you, but if you want students to be voting for you instead of screaming “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” in the club (POP I miss you), maybe supporting them and recognising them in lockdown measures would be a good start?
I would suggest (on this rare occasion) that the British government takes a leaf out of Macron’s book and pays attention to its marginalised youth. And I do mean the government here. Universities, although they got off to a slow start, have been extremely understanding and supportive of their students in my opinion – they’ve just had their hands tied by the bigwigs in power. If you want to start a narrative of ‘we’re all in this together’, you’ve got to get the ‘all’ bit right first.