Ten things we’ve learned so far from the Covid-19 crisis

Apparently, it’s almost “Easter”.

Whilst blogs that assert to have learned anything from the Covid crisis are bound to look old in a matter of days, there is in theory a chance to at least pause now the adrenalin of arguing about “no detriment” and “term 3 rent” is draining away.

Here I’ve had a go at drawing some lessons for SUs. I’ve bound to have missed some, and I’m bound to be wrong. Do get the debate going in the comments below.

1. I’m not your toy

One of the early galling moments experienced by many an SU officer was the realisation that a whole bunch of things that were previously put in the “too difficult” box – but that would have improved accessibility – have suddenly become affordable and deliverable in days.

There aren’t many upsides to a global pandemic, but plenty of SUs are hoping that an access and “online resources” legacy will be left once this is all over.

2. Maybe slowly you might learn again

That said, there are plenty of other aspects to the rush online that have left a number of students behind – and exposed just how difficult it is for some students to access their education.

There was a particularly telling exchange in the comments under an article on the site this week on “ethical debt” and the pivot to online – someone ranted “Why do hearing impaired people have ‘issues’ that differ from being in a physical class?”, having obviously not read a thoughtful piece from the National Deaf Children’s Society pointing out the problems. SUs are going to have to redouble efforts to ensure that decision makers understand the real diversity of students on and off campuses when this is all over.

3. I’ve got something to believe in

Hundreds of thousands of students have been campaigning for institution-wide changes to education policy this week. As DK noted on the site, it’s not been easy to act on – in some cases, universities have announced the principle and promised the detail later, whilst others have waited to get all the detail ducks in a row before announcing.

But maybe it tells us that when the demands are eye-catching, students really are ready, willing and able to get involved in big university-wide demands over their education – not the sort of campaign that many SUs are used to running.

4. Like a satellite, I’m in orbit all the way around you

What the rush of online petitions does tell us is just how broken our democratic systems are in SUs. It is, it turns out, totally possible to run a student council online – but is the method of determining students’ interests wise? Very few unions have spent the week thinking “we can work out what our position is on no-detriment by… writing a motion!”.

Not only are SU policy making structures nowhere near nimble enough, they are also failing to do that thing that democratic citizenship is supposed to do – make you aware of, respectful of and capable of mediating with others’ interests. A huge amount of time and investment in SUs has gone into developing elections in the last 10 years – perhaps we’d do well to spend as much time looking at the way in which SUs determine the collective views and beliefs of students in the next decade.

5. I’m in love with a fairytale, even though it hurts

There’s barely a university that isn’t theoretically proud of working in partnership with its SU – but arguably it takes a crisis to find out how much that is really meant. Eve Alcock and Megan Ball’s powerful piece on the frustration of working with universities on the site seemed to strike a chord with plenty of people this week, with lots of tales around the sector of officers being shut out of meetings and big decisions that will have a huge impact on students.

The question is where we go next. Neither of the old cliches perpetuated for years – the “radical outsider” or “compromised insider” models that Eve highlighted on the site earlier this year have looked anything like viable over the past couple of weeks. Do we need to do some work thinking through and working up what assertive partnership should mean as the sector enters a highly dangerous period financially?

6. We are the heroes of our time, but we’re dancing with the demons in our minds

Let’s be clear about this – SU officers and staff have been amazing in this crisis. It’s not just the graft, and the care shown to students – although that matters. It’s been the conversion of the “lightning rod” of student anguish into positive leadership for students.

What it is, of course, is completely unsustainable in the long term. We clearly need a model where students generally feel more powerful – where those who need SUs feel better able and equipped to fight their own battles. We had a think about that sort of stuff on the site last year.

7. I’m running, I’m scared tonight

If we thought that enrolling at university was a risky business before Covid-19, we really know it now. Student Protection Plans are supposed to set out how students will be protected if their course is under threat, but even if we let institutions off for not predicting a pandemic, we’ll need solutions for this coming September.

It’s a dull and technical bit of work for SUs in England, and not even possible elsewhere in the UK – but spending some time next term strengthening the protections for students in the event of course, campus, course component or even institutional closure is likely to be important to students’ interests in the next academic year.

8. Euphoria, forever till the end of time

We’ve seen some extraordinary levels of collectivism and collaboration over the past couple of weeks. Usually in a crisis you get the opposite – people hunker into the bunker, but it seems a shared crisis generates new friendships, structures and ideas for working together.

Traditionally the “student movement” has done its collaboration and collectivism through NUS – but in the future with the national union focussed firmly on campaigns, maybe SUs need to take a lead on more flexible initiatives, projects and groups that can share the load and the costs in the interests of students.

9. Only teardrops

The slow unfolding horror of the “Term 3 rent” problem has been uncomfortable to see this week, as various sector actors started to learn just how much complexity and profit is involved in the way we house students in this country. Asking universities to relieve the rent has been one thing – but watching PBSA firms that are mere fronts for collections of individually owned investment pods pretend they’re really concerned for student safety has opened many an eye this week. And watching ministers in Scotland say things like “landlords that own five properties aren’t rich” before rejecting legislation allowing students to cancel contracts early was a particularly low point.

In the last parliament there were mild nudges in the direction of reform, but this is arguably an area where some long term concerted effort is needed from SUs to being about real change.

10. Rise Like a Phoenix

Working in student activities has become quite miserable in some ways, both because of the sheer weight of admin generated by increased participation, and because of the ever-growing expectations on student activities professionals to regulate the behaviour of what are often fairly loose groups of friends. As ever with regulation – it’s well meaning and hard to argue with, but really does feel like a weight.

So we should if we can take a few moments to learn from some of the activity we’ve seen spring up over the past few weeks. First it’s clear that university wide activity really matters – as Wonkhe’s own (and OU student officer) Fanni Zombor pointed out on the site, online often means people build their “bridging” social capital. It’s also clear that when SUs directly run social activity rather than hoping that everything will happen through societies, amazing things can happen – and we can include those not included before.

11. Small-town boy in a big arcade, I got addicted to a losing game

OK – one final one. It’s been great over the past week to see all the ways in which universities have responded to the pandemic. It reminds us that universities are public in nature and at least can be civic in view – making a vital contribution to communities.

But we should also remember the relentless decades of pretending that higher education is only a private good to bolster personal salary levels. It’s great that universities have been contributing – but let’s remember they’re doing so underwritten by sky-high international fees and student debt. Now that the sector is almost certainly in some trouble financially, it’ll take a concerted effort from SUs and others to make the pivot to “public” last.

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