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The government’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic is so comprehensive, so multi-faceted, that devoting sufficient attention to each scandal can be a challenge. Consider this one. Back in late August, when the daily average of coronavirus deaths was 10 – it is now more than 400 – the University and College Union (UCU) released a statement entitled “Universities must not become the care homes of a Covid second wave”.
“The union fears that the migration of over a million student risks doing untold damage to people’s health, and exacerbating the worst health crisis of our lifetimes,” it warned. This was ignored. When, three weeks later, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) recommended a shift to online learning “unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential”, it was ignored, too. The result? The mass internal migration of young people to and from every corner of Britain, which helped fuel a second wave, and their near imprisonment in overcrowded accommodation.
The consequences are grave indeed, not least for the wellbeing of a cohort of young people who have been robbed of their youth. Being a first-year university student during a pandemic was never going to be the booze-ridden, hedonistic experience enjoyed by past freshers, but consider what they have been put through. A 19-year-old humanities student, Josh, who uses they, suffered at the hands of this year’s great A-level palaver. “I was only marked down two grades [by Ofqual’s algorithm], though, so I wasn’t as unlucky as some people were,” they tell me. As demanded by government, they were herded to Manchester University with the promise of in-person socially distanced seminars (“that was our initial plan”, the authorities there tell me). To begin with, academic staff were indeed told to deliver in-person teaching. But, as UCU predicted, outbreaks of illness on campus inevitably forced all teaching online: and so it proved, as Josh’s university was afflicted with more than a thousand positive cases. “A lot of people feel lied and tricked into coming here,” they tell me. “We’re being treated as though we exist for profit, for money, and nothing else.”
Students are away from home for the first time – some from abroad – without having being able to establish friendships and connections in the normal way as they endure isolation. “It’s getting to the point where it feels quite dangerous,” Josh explains. Manchester University tells me that “the mental health and wellbeing of our students is of the utmost importance to us,” pointing to services including online support. But when Josh looked for help from the student welfare officer, they tell me, they found an empty desk, a leaflet and a number for the Samaritans. (The university does not believe this to be a “true representation of our services”.) One Manchester student was found dead in halls last month – his bereaved father subsequently warning that if young people are locked down “with little support, then you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety”.
You might expect Manchester University to have sympathised with the plight of its students. Instead it spent £11,000 constructing a fence around Josh’s halls: the university authorities later apologised for this, claiming that it had been erected in response to concerns about security raised by students and staff. When students have called for rent strikes – bear in mind that many students normally depend on now non-existent part-time jobs in order to survive – they tell me the have been threatened with fines. When students organised a protest on Thursday, several riot vans and the Tactical Aid Unit of local police showed up; students claim they were threatened with arrests and fines and were filmed going about their daily business while respecting regulations. (The university says it “worked collaboratively” with the police and note that the organisers “engaged with officers and agreed to hold the event in a safe way as to protect themselves and the wider public”.)
As of Friday, several students are occupying a building in protest: their demands include that management meet students and the UCU, a rent reduction of at least 40% and increased support for students. One of them is 21-year old Mattie – studying disaster management, appropriately enough – who is very clear that the universities are “putting profit before people”, noting that first-year students in particular provide rent revenue to their educational institutions. A university spokesperson said: “We are already engaging with elected Students’ Union representatives about many of the issues being highlighted by the protesters.”
The tone-deaf response of university authorities aside, a rational government would have learned from its disastrous mistakes, but we are ruled by no such thing. “We said in August that if you encourage over a million students to travel across the country without test and trace, you’ll create a second wave and that’s exactly what happened,” says the UCU general secretary, Jo Grady. But extraordinarily, she points out that the authorities are now planning a special week-long window for students in England to travel back home “like cattle” on limited public transport, and then repeat the farce of sending them back to university.
The young have been clobbered for a decade, and this pandemic is no exception. The government’s treatment of students is a public health disaster and a mental health crisis rolled into one. A Conservative administration reliant on the support of older generations may consider the fury and anguish of its younger citizens to be politically survivable. But as the pandemic subsides, and some normality returns, it may find that the young are in no mood to either forgive or forget.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist
Source: The Guardian
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