Money Over Mental Health: How Universities Failed Students In The Pandemic

Students were sent back to university in Autumn term with nothing but uncertainty on how this academic year would unfold. With teaching being conducted predominantly online, our university experience has been vastly different to the one we expected.

Being confined to cramped university accommodation and spending most of our days in our bedrooms is detrimental for our well-being; in fact, the current situation has widely been described as a student mental health crisis. On top of this, is the fear that we may not even be allowed to travel home for Christmas.

It was released in October that at least one university student has died every week
since the start of term. Heartbreakingly, eight students altogether have died with
one of these students being from Manchester University. Finn Kitson passed away
on the 8th of October and was described by his father described as having
“severe anxiety”.

Only weeks after this tragedy, University of Manchester students awoke to find fences surrounding the entire campus, without any warning or explanation of what was
happening. This caused national controversy – and quite rightly so. Imagine being
18-years old and making the daunting move away from your family home to then be
caged inside your accommodation.

Institutional support has been virtually non-existent which has led students to
retaliate. Izzy Smitheman, a first year student at Manchester University, co-ordinated
a mass protest on campus via a network of Whatsapp groups in a matter of hours after discovering the fences. The protest was initially a reaction to the dehumanizing nature of the fences but events were fueled by other contributing factors, such as students feeling that the university was not listening to them. During the protest, students released their anger by tearing down the fences that made them feel like caged animals.

The idea of a fence being put up to stop students leaving halls is alarming but it is particularly distressing after a student has committed suicide within the last month. The university should be distributing all the mental health support they can to students, not heightening anxiety levels by trapping them. The fences have since been removed.

On top of this, the aid for Covid positive students is said to be minimal. Izzy told
UnHerd: “They were suggesting if we didn’t have someone we know who could
get us food then they would have to put on a mask and go to the shops themselves
which is not only unsafe but also illegal.”

Another case of students being forced to take control in the shadow of colossal
university failure is at Lancaster University. Self-isolating students are being
charged an outrageous £17.95 a day for food boxes. This is a ludicrous amount to pay for
a days worth of food and well beyond the average student’s budget. On
average, students can spend £25 on enough food to last for a week. Shockingly,
these food boxes were valued at £2.70 yielding a £15.25 profit for the university.

As a result, Lancaster Labour Soc have come together in student solidarity to set
up a free food bank for students isolating which has, unsurprisingly, become wildly
more popular than the university scheme.

I spoke to Zoe Fair, who is the Co-Chair of the society and one of the students in
charge of organising the food bank. She commented: “We have a group of 20
volunteers so I’ve been organising all the boxes in a spare room of my house along
with one of my housemates. We put all the boxes together here and use our
volunteers to help get them delivered to wherever they need to go.”

Currently, the volunteers have delivered an impressive 114 boxes containing the
essentials: milk, tea, bread, biscuits, pasta, fruit and more. Zoe added: “We just
wanted to do whatever we could to make sure these people are supported during
these times.”

Students were told by the government to go back to university despite teaching
being predominately online. As a result, students have been subject to blame for
this virus spreading – despite only doing as the government had instructed. We are still expected to pay full tuition fees which is incredibly frustrating when many students are only in for an hour a week. This precarious system of caring more about the fees than the mental health of the students urgently needs to change.

Please talk to your friends and family if you are struggling or contact Samaritans on
116 123, Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, or Calm
(Campaign Against Living Miserably, for men aged 15 to 35) on 0800 58 58 58 if you
or someone you know has been affected by these events.

Words by Pia Cooper

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