OFFICERS RESPONSE TO A SERIES OF LETTERS RECEIVED

 

At the start of January, we received several of the same letter from some of our students. We have responded to these students, but we thought it was important to share our full response with our student body as well. Click below to read our response to each area below. The original email can be found as an appendix to this response.

COVID-19 MEASURES

Thank you for your email to the Students’ Union about the third national lockdown. We too, were disappointed that in the Prime Minister’s address, there was no mention of Universities and guidance for Higher Education students. In the full guidance released by the government shortly after the announcement of a national lockdown, guidance to students was included. We do not think this is enough guidance for students, even when paired with the previous guidance to students and Universities about safe return. We will be writing to Ministers about how and when students should return and how the government will support students who are not eligible for face-to-face teaching, especially those on practical courses.

 

As a Students’ Union we have often found that many decisions have not had our input or advice before being made. We exist to represent and lobby on behalf of students and that it what we have been, and will continue to be, doing. We think that it is important to emphasise that for the vast majority of things, we do not hold the decision-making power. We will, of course, always represent your views and your interests to those who hold this power, and we believe that right now, this role is more important than ever.

ON UNIVERSAL BURSARIES AND GRANTS

One of the Students’ Union’s Big Plan priorities this year is Loans, Bursaries, and Grants. This is being led on by our VP Southend, Ria, and this aims to improve awareness of loans, bursaries, and grants - making information regarding these more available and make additional costs of studying clearer to students. We understand the financial hardship that many students are facing because of COVID-19 and its associated impacts will not be addressed by this work, but we are working to highlight the available grants that exist and are available to support our students during this difficult time.

 

We are lobbying the government to increase funding for students to support them throughout the pandemic. If you are facing financial hardship, the University’s Hardship Fund is available to all students to access throughout the academic year and our VP Welfare, Vinnosh, has worked hard to increase its accessibility for all students. More information can be found here.

 

As I’m sure you’re aware, the Students’ Union held a referendum in December about tuition fees and we are now working nationally to lobby the government to reduce fees during the pandemic to reflect the change in delivery and University experience. Mark, as VP Education, and Molly, as SU President, have been working on this and will continue to work on this as a priority in the coming weeks and months.

ON ACCOMODATION

The University is continuing to take a flexible approach and students are able to alter their contract to release them from their University accommodation contracts:

 

“Students who have been resident in our accommodation, but have left our campuses for the vacation before the end of term due to the requirements of the Government’s travel window, we will reimburse you for 10 days of accommodation between 9 December and the end of term on 18 December when you were not able to be resident on campus. In addition, should you wish to defer your return to your accommodation in the Spring Term, then please complete the following pause request form by 15 January 2021 Pause Request Form, so that they are able to pause your tenancy until you intend to move back in.”

 

More information about this can be found here.

 

We believe what the University is doing here is fair to students – insofar as not charging students for accommodation they cannot use – and following discussions between the University and the SU, the deadline for completion of the pause request form is now the 15th January instead of the 8th.

 

With regards to private accommodation, SU Advice will continue to be there on a case-by-case basis to support students and give guidance to those who want to leave their accommodation contracts early because of the situation. SU Advice is able to provide advice on the processes of challenging your landlord.

 

On extending deadlines and increasing support for assessment

We have been having regular meetings with the University to work with them to ensure that assessment is fair during this pandemic and we will continue to push for further consideration to be given to students given these new circumstances. We do, however, recommend that unless you need to return to your term-time address – for compelling reasons such as for effective study space, mental health concerns, or because your course is happening in person – you stay where you are.

 

Throughout this pandemic we have continued to work with our fantastic student reps who provide us with on-the-ground feedback and insights. We will be working with these students to assess what further support can be provided to students when completing assessments.

 

We have been working closely with the University to ensure there is something similar to No Detriment – last year’s policy – and at Education Committee helped pass a suite of proposals to make examinations fairer and more reflective of ability – such as open book examination becoming the norm. However, this doesn’t address the issue of COVID-19 and the new National Lockdown affecting students and we will now revisit, with the University, what policies can be put in place to ensure that the pandemic is fully taken into account when assessing work.

 

We understand that to control the virus, moving as much teaching online as possible is necessary, however, we also know that students need extra support because of this move, especially given the realities of a global pandemic. That is why we will be asking the British government, with other Students’ Unions to, among other demands, increase University funding that would be directly spent on students on things like mental health support, further assessment support, and student financial hardship.

So, what are we doing?

We are:

  • Asking the University to automatically extend all deadlines by 4 weeks
  • Asking the University to extend the deadline for the pause request form
  • Writing to Ministers to ask for further guidance for students, especially for further guidance about return to campus
  • Working with other Students’ Unions to demand the government increases support, including financial, for students
  • Making Loans, Bursaries and Grants more accessible to students by improving awareness of them
  • Reaching out to our Student Reps to evaluate what further support can be given to students with regards to assessment
  • Revisit what further No Detriment policies can be brought in to support students with the University
  • Continue ensuring that SU Advice continues to offer its advice service for students on accommodation issues

 

If you wish to discuss any of this further, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me and I will be happy to answer questions, set up a meeting, or redirect your question to the best placed person to answer. Contact me by emailing vpeducation@essex.ac.uk

Appendix A - Original email

not edited apart from redacting personal information

 

Dear Essex SU,

 

Over the course of this pandemic there has been a shameful lack of support and guidance from university and government bodies as it pertains to university students. Following Boris Johnson’s recent announcement of a third national lockdown, yet again there has been zero mention of any guidance or direction for students to follow.

 

For the third time we are being urged to stay at home despite the fact that assignments and exams are still proceeding without extensions. In addition to this, many students are locked into contractual obligations and tenancy agreements with no recourse. At the beginning of the academic year, students were misled by universities into believing that their physical presence at university was compulsory only for this to be debunked at the beginning of the term when contracts and tenancy agreements had already begun with no way out. The pandemic has caused a shortage of jobs and increased redundancies meaning that even more students are in a financially vulnerable position that could have been avoided had there been better communication from the universities and guidance from the government. It is shocking that students are being expected to pay for accommodation that is inaccessible due to government guidelines and there has been no support from universities to mitigate this. To add to the further financial tension, university fees have continued as normal despite the reduction in services, resources and quality of education.

 

We are aware that circumstances are ever changing and these times are unprecedented however, this does not negate your duty of care towards us which has been non-existent. To expect students to continue and excel with their assessments as normal, with less than the half of the support, resources and contact time experienced in previous years is nothing short of a catastrophe. Pairing this with the financial strain aforementioned has negatively affected the mental health of many students who are constantly existing in limbo leaving them unable to effectively focus on their academic requirements.

 

The global pandemic only exacerbates matters. We are having to navigate our lives around this virus, watching it affect loved ones and as this is the case, one would expect students to be given the necessary support to navigate this virus in the best way possible. But unfortunately, the government and universities have consistently failed on this part since March 2020.

 

I am pleading with you to call for action from the university and the government. We would appreciate if these points could be addressed to ameliorate the situation at hand:

  • Universal bursaries/grants to offset financial strain caused by furlough and redundancies
  • Accommodation/housing
  • The issue of students being locked into tenancy agreements that were avoidable
  • Extended deadlines and increased support for assessments

 

Yours Sincerely,

[names redacted]