Students have been hung out to dry by Gavin Williamson

University students have been constantly sidelined and ignored throughout this crisis, writes student and journalist Zesha Saleem.

Zesha Saleem is a freelance journalist.

Back in November, Manchester University students won a 30% rent cut following a series of protests and strikes. According to the university, the total reduction equated to £4 million— possibly making it the largest ever rebates secured by students following a rent strike campaign.

In early 2021— when university students were told not to return to their accommodation but were expected to carry on paying for it— students from Cardiff, Swansea and Bangor threatened to withhold their rent. By the end of January, strikes were ongoing in at least 55 universities, with over 15’000 students nationwide signing up to withhold their next rent payment.

Right now, Sheffield Hallam is the latest university with rent strikes going on, with their organiser and first-year student Zach Larkham telling me that they’ve been “betrayed, blamed and forced to pay – we’ve been treated like cash cows this year by landlords and universities.” For them, the strikes have been “a last resort.”

None of this was an overnight phenomenon. Pressure within the student community was steadily building since universities reopened. More and more universities opted for fully online learning (despite promising otherwise), many students were trapped in their rooms as Covid-19 ripped through campuses, and students’ mental health often under strain, students were not getting what they deserved. They felt ignored, sidelined and quite frankly, thrown under the bus.

Everyone has different thoughts on who suffered the most during the pandemic. In my view, university students and new graduates have had it especially tough. Studying in a pandemic with a collapsing jobs market and record levels of unemployment in the backdrop has taken its toll.

As a student, living the same life of waking up, attending online lectures all day before spending the evening just sitting around hasn’t been easy.

Zoom seminars can only take you so far. Nothing can replace learning with real people around you, in a place that isn’t your desk or your bed, with the chance to ask questions, discuss topics and learn from others in real time. 

The lack of social contact, either with friends or lecturers, has also exacerbated the situation. I know people who have barely known anyone on their course. Breakout ‘rooms’ online may sometimes be helpful but aren’t a recommended way to make friends.

With all this in view, it’s natural to turn to the government for help and advice. What have they been doing about this? When it comes to the renting crisis, how much support has come from the government specifically? Not as part of ‘university support’ but an issue in its own right?

To our dismay, not much at all. University students have been constantly sidelined and ignored throughout this crisis— our worries and problems are swept under the carpet in favour of policies which might appeal to the government’s agenda.

We saw this during press conferences and key lockdown announcements. We weren’t even mentioned, leaving us to trawl through documents and Twitter to find out what was going on. When it came to securing rent rebates, it was all a mess— for the students who weren’t offered automatic rent rebates, they had to strike and protest loudly to get their voice heard.

Students up and down the country are worrying about their prospects, their futures, their lives — yet we’re being ignored. Our concerns are pushed to the back of the queue while the Education Secretary reduces the way he solves our problems to a policy pick ‘n’ mix.

There is so much to be addressed, yet the government isn’t acknowledging it at all.  For me, and I suspect many students up and down the country, it is hugely insulting. Our concerns have been airbrushed, and our worries worsened.

We’ve been asking for more support, both financially and otherwise, but our demands have fallen on deaf ears.

The past few months have confirmed that in the eyes of the Education Secretary, our challenges don’t matter – and the government isn’t willing to solve them.

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