At Newcastle, we have talked a lot over the past 10 months about the ‘lessons learned from lockdown.
Professor Chris Day, Vice-Chancellor and President, Newcastle University
Some we will be happy to see banished to the depths of Room 101. But others will be taken forward into the future, to enhance and improve the way we work and the experience we offer to our students in the future.
Among these positives has been the much closer collaboration between the university and the students’ union.
Our sabbatical officers – both last year and this – have shown extraordinary resilience and compassion in the face of adversity.
And by working together we have supported thousands of students in need, communicated the complex and ever changing messages around teaching and restrictions, and been able to make quick decisions that are based on real-time, honest feedback from our whole university community.
I know from speaking to colleagues across the sector that everyone has been genuinely grateful for their honesty, their criticism and their support.
I have been genuinely impressed by the quality of online learning and support services that have been offered by our teams here at Newcastle this year. But despite the monumental efforts by staff at all levels and across the sector, no institution has been able to offer the wider university experience of a normal year.
The impact of the pandemic on the Class of 2021 has been huge and students have taken on a significant financial burden including travel and accommodation costs.
We took an early decision at Newcastle to refund those students in university-owned accommodation for the time they are not here because of the national lockdown. It’s a move that will cost us in the region of £11m – but it’s the right and moral thing to do.
I know this has not solved the problem. Fifty per cent of our students at Newcastle live in privately-owned accommodation and I am acutely aware of the difficulties facing these students.
Together with my colleagues from across the sector, we have actively raised this issue locally and nationally with government and the housing sector.
There is also a strong case for additional hardship and wellbeing support for students. The one-off allocation of £20 million for English HEIs announced in December 2020 is a fraction of what is being provided in the devolved administrations and sadly doesn’t meet the significant increase in hardship needs caused by the pandemic.
At Newcastle, we have already spent in the region of £4m on support for students over and above our usual spend, including IT loan schemes and wifi access, additional wellbeing support, self-isolation support packages and a holiday support package for those students who needed to stay in Newcastle over the winter break.
Like most universities, we also have a hardship fund set aside and this support will continue for as long as the pandemic persists and as long as our students need it.
Beyond university, the Class of 2021 will be emerging into a very different world and a difficult job market and it is vital we consider the wider issue of student debt in the context of the pandemic.
There is now real hope that we will soon return to some kind of normal – that our campuses will once again come alive and we will be able to properly welcome our students back to the city.
But the impact of Covid-19 on this year’s cohort must be acknowledged, not just by the sector, but also by Government.
Having just finished my own education in September, I understand how this year’s students are feeling.
Sian Dickie, Education Officer, Newcastle University Students’ Union
I studied both during the strikes and the pandemic, in total only having 3 months in-person teaching during my PGT programme, so I can sympathise with the fact that working online is a very different learning and teaching environment for students and staff alike.
But we are in the middle of a global pandemic – a situation completely out of everyone’s control – so what is important above all is that students and staff work in partnership.
The government has given very little support financially or otherwise to universities or young people during this pandemic – we have been largely forgotten about or used as scapegoats.
While our lecturers are working hard to deliver an innovative and quality education, the move to a completely online and remote learning environment has had a detrimental impact on the university experience and wellbeing of many students.
It is now time for the government to recognise this, and the associated financial burden that current students are carrying, and compensate the Class of 2021 who have been so significantly impacted.
This can’t be a “one size fits all” approach. The complexity of the fees process means that just offering a debt reduction – without a top up for universities from the government – or a refund would not work for everyone.
Universities would have to make cuts to vital services and staff to make up for the losses. It would also put some smaller institutions at risk.
Instead, together with our university, we are lobbying the government for a fair and inclusive approach to compensating students for the impact of Covid-19.
That should include:
- Recognition of the lost learning experiences for all UG and PG students. As part of this, NUSU are also calling for reduction by a third in the amount of debt incurred this academic year and for the threshold for repaying student loans to be raised to take into consideration the current graduate market.
- A package of wellbeing support equivalent to what has been offered by the Welsh and Scottish Governments.
- Compensation for students where they have been unable to travel to term-time accommodation.
We need to recognise that all students have missed out this year on the wider student experience, that there has been a loss of personal development opportunities and a toll on mental wellbeing. A push for this type of compensation is something that is needed to reflect what has happened over the 2020/2021 academic year.