By Tori Gordon
Since the Coronavirus outbreak began, it is clear that the lives of so many people have been affected; from cancelled weddings to being on lockdown alone, I don’t think anyone could have imagined the situation that we’re all currently facing. Whilst the impact of the pandemic has undoubtedly been felt by everyone in some way or another, it seems like students have been forgotten about and pushed aside amongst the chaos, missing out on important milestones and facing futures of uncertainty, with little support from our country’s leaders.
We’re constantly told that our university years will be the best of our lives; a time that we’ll remember forever and a time that we’ll never get back, but what if our entire university experience is interrupted by a pandemic?
Some people might consider students as being the lucky ones; our term has ended early, most of our exams have been cancelled or moved online and we’re free for the summer, but the reality of the situation is far from this. Students have spent years and months attending lectures, submitting coursework and revising for exams, things which in normal circumstances would be important milestones in our careers; successes which would usually be celebrated have now been robbed from us, with no recognition of our achievements. Despite efforts to move teaching online, universities are often ill-equipped for this, students may not be able to work effectively from home, and ultimately, the cancellation of exams means that months of work now feels like a waste of time as there will be no record of our efforts through assessments or exams. As well as this, for work which is still going ahead, the different mitigation processes put in place by universities will inevitably result in different levels of pressure being placed on different people to continue to do well; something which seems unfair given the current circumstances. Whilst this time is usually one that is intense and stressful, it is also time spent with friends from across the country and around the world, and a time to reflect on another year, or the completion of an entire degree. This year, final year students won’t be able to celebrate the thing that they’ve worked towards for so many years; there will be no graduations, no opportunity to get dressed up and be surrounded by the course friends and tutors who made their university experience what it was. There will be no day where the individual success of every student is recognised and celebrated before they enter the next stage of their career.
The financial impact that the pandemic is having on students is another problem which has been largely overlooked; students are expected to pay full tuition fees for this academic year, despite teaching being online or stopped altogether, as well as having to pay for accommodation which is no longer in use. Whilst some universities have agreed that their accommodation contracts can be ended early, this often only applies to first year students or those who live in university owned halls, and the conditions of early cancellation have required students to empty their halls despite the whole country being on lockdown, leaving many in an impossible position. On the other hand, the majority of students renting shared housing through letting agents and landlords are stuck in contracts requiring us to pay for housing which we can’t use, and with many students and family members losing jobs which they relied on to pay rent, the financial difficulties being faced are becoming more apparent. Whilst student loans have still been received, no extra governmental financial support has been given to students, resulting in heavy reliance on university hardship funds which are becoming stretched and hard to access at a time when they are most needed.
On top of having the final part of their university experience taken away, graduates of 2020 are now facing unemployment and large amounts of uncertainty surrounding their futures; entering the job market just as the country plunges into recession. It has already been confirmed that over a quarter of businesses have plans to reduce the number of graduate positions for this year, and as the number of open positions is continuing to decline, only around 18% of graduates have secured a job, compared to 60% this time last year; an undeniable difference which is creating huge amounts of anxiety for students trying to secure placements. Confidence of gaining employment is rapidly shrinking for graduates, and as well as concern over the number of jobs available, many are worried that they won’t be able to find employment in the sector they had initially planned to, as well as facing more competition than they usually would have, and salaries being impacted by the recession. Time spent at university is often with a goal to pursue a particular career, with the next step being employment, but the new reality is that these plans have been interrupted. The excitement of finally entering jobs that have been worked towards for so long has been taken away, and students are now left in a competition to find whatever employment they can, or having to delay their plans by another year with no certainty that there will be more opportunities in the future. Students had also been relying on graduate employment financially; having to pay rent and having already made plans to relocate for jobs with no extra financial support means that students are finding themselves in desperate positions to secure whatever employment they can.
Students of earlier years have also been impacted by the Coronavirus, with work experience, internships, placements and years abroad being cancelled. Already, 31% of internships have been cancelled, whilst some have been shortened or moved online, and as many as 68% of short-term work experience placements or taster sessions have also been cancelled, leaving many students without an opportunity to experience a working environment in the sector they want to pursue. It goes without saying that all employers rank experience highly when hiring applicants, and many companies require experience in the form of internships or placements for their roles, so whilst the pandemic may not directly impact the employment of future graduates, the lack of opportunities which are an important step towards graduate employment has left students with a lack of hope and optimism about their futures. Whilst no one knows what the future of employment will be, it is likely that knock on effects of the pandemic will be seen for many years. The huge decline in graduate positions this year means it is likely that competition for jobs will be greater in following years; many 2020 graduates will now enter employment for the first time next year, meaning that future graduates who will lack work experience, will be competing for the same jobs as previous graduates who do have the necessary experience. The pandemic has also robbed many students of the opportunity to work in industry or to travel and study abroad; an integral part of some degrees, and a once in a lifetime opportunity for many. After months of applications, planning relocations and booking flights, many placements and years abroad have now been cancelled, and for those that haven’t, the situation remains a waiting game of apprehension, in a time that should have been chaotic but exciting, and nerve wracking yet hopeful.
The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on everything and everyone, but the effects on students have been made worse by the ignorance of the government towards us; it has currently been 9 weeks since the virus was declared a pandemic, and whilst support and guidance has been given regarding everything from schools to businesses, universities and students have been completely disregarded. There are no blanket plans for universities about examinations and assessments, or about returning to teaching in the Autumn, and with universities being left to come up with their own strategies, it is hard not to think that differences between these plans will result in discrepancies in classifications and learning quality between different universities. We have been neglected of opportunities to prove our ability and celebrate our successes, graduates are entering employment as the country goes into recession, and students are facing the prospect of online teaching for the foreseeable future. Whilst I am so aware that everyone has been affected by the pandemic, and that there is so much more going on right now, as a student, I can’t help but feel that I have been robbed of a year and left with nothing but apprehension and anxiety about the future.