#SaveOurStudents: The student stories behind the campaign

In January, Housemates launched the #SaveOurStudents campaign, calling for decision-makers to provide clarity, fairness and flexibility to students to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic and necessary restrictions. Today, guest-writer Mafalda Casanova, a first-year student at Lancaster University, shares some of the student stories behind the campaign.

As I was growing up I had this scenario in my head of going to university. The scenario would slightly alter throughout time as I would change my opinion about what I wanted to study, or where I wanted to go. However, there was this one aspect that I was quite sure about – as I entered the university gates, I would look around and see the people that would shape the world in a near future. The next doctors, politicians, lawyers, scientists, artists, nutritionists, entrepreneurs – they would be there. We would be there. Together, aiming for a better tomorrow.

At this very moment, I look around and see no one. I’m alone at my desk, locked inside my home, trying to learn as much as I can from a laptop screen – and like me, so are all the other students.

This virus has both taken and given – like a wicked event that no one chose to attend. It has taken our physical wellbeing, our freedom, our chance to socialise with our friends and to make new ones. It has taken the university experience that all of us were entitled to, and in many cases, it has even taken loved ones without ever returning them. But Covid also made offerings. It gave us anxiety, loneliness, a lack of focus and motivation, and the sense of imminent danger.

 “My anxiety and mental health has become so impacted that I am currently signed off work” - Charlotte Ashley-Higgins, 20, University of Wolverhampton.

I have this tendency to always try to find the bright side. The first reaction that came into my mind was, “Since I’m not able to travel, to eat out, or go to the shopping centre, or go to the movies, or go to any parties...or GO OUT at all, at least I will be saving tons of money. Covid will make me an emotionally destroyed millionaire. Cool.”.

Sadly, this is not the case. Students, while sitting at their home desks, are currently paying for accommodation they can’t access. Most of them rely on financial assistance from supportive parents, who may now also be struggling to support this expense. The closure of retail and hospitality has left those who would usually rely on part-time work to support their education in major difficulty, with no support from furlough schemes in most cases. None of them would have guessed that one day, their monthly expenses would include an uninhabited, distant student room.

Considering the pandemic that lives among us, it would be unfair to make students take the hit for this, even in the scenario of a student choosing not to return to their accommodation, especially if they have their own health and safety concerns. Charlotte, who’s studying at the University of Wolverhampton, is now staying at her mum’s house in Birmingham. Her mum has sarcoidosis and is currently shielding, so Charlotte has chosen to stay at home to provide care, home-school her younger siblings and avoid putting the family at risk. “Even if I could go back, I wouldn’t due to the fact I felt so unsafe before I left. ... There was absolutely no management of government restrictions”, she said. Though hygiene concerns are not the case in most student accommodations, there are clearly students with their own concerns which need the flexibility to cancel their contracts early and return when it is safe and viable for them to do so.

Students across the border in Wales share similar concerns. Elin, a student at Cardiff Metropolitan University said, “My experience with student accommodation this academic year has been horrible. We’ve been told to stay away for two months and despite this, we are only getting back two weeks’ worth of rent money. How is that fair? We shouldn’t have to pay for accommodation we legally can’t use.”

These issues alone should be worthy of considering rent rebates or early contract releases, but this is beyond questions of ethics or morality, it is a matter of duty. Many students are currently being penalised for following the rules and contributing to an improvement in the global health crisis - a crisis which they will be paying for over the rest of their lives. Either the time I’ve spent looking at a screen has damaged my sight, or justice is in fact nowhere to be seen. 

This calls for support. Actual support. Not a limited, headline-friendly version of it, as with the partial refunds being given by some accommodation providers. Joel, also a student at Cardiff Metropolitan University, said, “[my accommodation operator] have told us they will offer a 50% rent rebate for a four-week period, essentially meaning we get two weeks of rent rebate for what is looking like at least eight weeks away from the residences (...). All the while, they are still chasing students to pay their term instalment of around £2,400. My loan doesn’t even cover my rent instalment!”. This has since extended this refund to seven weeks, but kept it at 50%.  

Unfortunately, the “student” label seems to imply childish naivety suitable for financial exploitation and disregard from decision-makers. “They have failed to consider students’ circumstances and it feels like they are deliberately messing about young, impressionable students”, says Danielle, who’s studying at the University of West England in Bristol.

Don’t be misled: our youth doesn’t carry immaturity, it carries courage. The type of courage it takes to leave our homes, wave farewell to family and take off to the place which enables us to shape tomorrow’s world.

As for me, it was night time when my airport bus arrived at Lancaster University and the campus was dark and empty. As I turned around and looked at my friend I realised weren't scared. We were excited because we knew that we were on a journey that would eventually lead us to contribute to society and the economy, as we have always aspired to do. We cannot allow that energy and excitement be drained by poor treatment and a lack of support - it’s essential to our future.

If you haven’t already, you might be prepared to dial up your accommodation provider with an angry speech on queue, but wait. These providers are victims of this crisis too and are trying to get by with the same levels of uncertainty. Whilst their inboxes are understandably filled with students demanding rebates and contract releases, many accommodation providers do not own the buildings which they manage and are therefore under a legal obligation to pay their rents, too. 

Despite the stories from some major student accommodation chains, many providers want to do the right thing but need support to help their student tenants. Allied Students, who have buildings across Birmingham and Manchester, shared that, “With our own financial obligations, we need the Government to provide financial support and clear guidance so that we can help students by providing transparency, fairness and flexibility through this time. The higher education sector can help provide the country with a bright future, but we need support now to let that happen.”

In this struggle, students and providers are holding hands, albeit with gloves for sanitary reasons, and we need to be supported. The #SaveOurStudents campaign calls for the Government to provide clear guidance and financial support to ease the difficulty being caused by current restrictions. You can support the cause by visiting the #SaveOurStudents website.

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