FEBRUARY 15, 2021

Fighting for students welfare during the Covid era

Two interviews with Patrick O’Donnell

YUSU President

By Alexandre von Hornstein - PPE student at University of York

I understand you had a conversation with the President of the National Union of Students, Larissa Kennedy regarding issues such as rising costs of accommodations  and ensuring genuine support for students from the Government and universities. How will YUSU, alongside other Student Unions, coordinate a  campaign to tackle these issues?

So we recognise there are major challenges facing students right across the country at the moment. These are huge challenges in respect to finances, in respect to mental health provision, and even in respect of  job prospects when students leave university given the economic climate at the moment. So we recognise, to solve these challenges, we have to work beyond the remits of our universities, we have to work with student unions and student movements across the country to ensure that we see genuine support for students. So far, the government has failed, I'm afraid in protecting students during the pandemic. They failed to provide  adequate testing, track and trace provision. And they failed to support students financially as well . and I’m really disappointed you know that they failed to provide adequate support for the students and its being left to student unions and universities to pick up the pieces to provide financial support for students. However I should say I am really pleased that the university has provided financial support for students through the emergency student support fund,  which has given over 1 million pounds this year since the first lockdown in the spring. It just shows how vital extra support is at this time when many students won’t have (will have 9 reduced income due to loss of employment and other challenges.


In terms of ensuring how our voice and concerns are heard by the government, we approach the government and we know, we campaign for change at all different levels. So we engage with the National Union of Students , who we regularly meet. We engage with education and health ministers to try to  get the very best deal for students. And there are areas where that has worked. I am delighted that we have an on campus testing centre to enable students to get tested now, before they travel home over  the Christmas break. However , there are questions you know, like when will we have that testing centre back open in January to welcome students back. And we have also got issues surrounding the student travel window over the second start travel window in January and February. It’s a five week period of travel, and students will not have access to their accommodation obviously if they are delayed. So that’s why we have been working with the university and I am really pleased that we have been able to lobby the university and they have said that they will refund the rents on a case by case basis back to students who are delayed coming back to campus next year. Yea so we have to work with the government and the university and a variety of levels and it takes a really long time to get change  but you know, we are absolutely committed to working with other student unions because the most effective way to bring about change is when we come together. And look, students across York and in other universities and across the region and across the country in fact, have faced the same student .. faced the same issues as students who ?. So it's really important that we look at that shared …shared challenges we face. And we also think of shared solutions to how we can tackle those major issues that we face.



Some universities, such as Cambridge, announced prior to the school year commencing that all lectures and seminars would be online. Do you think that it would have been best for other universities to follow said example?


Well it's worth bearing in mind that the government did tell universities, student unions and students that it would be safe to come back to campus in September . They said all students would receive a brilliant standard of education and brilliant health support and you know brilliant pastoral care. I’m afraid that is obviously , as we know, that’s not the picture that we can see universally across the country. But I know that students here in York, roundabout 60% of students  here in York, voted in a weekly poll survey sent out by the university . And 60% voted for a blended approach , which means some in person seminars where it's safe to do so, and obviously those bigger lectures being online. So I really think it is important that students don’t just have a solely online experience and there are opportunities to meet your peers and meet your tutors and socialise obviously safely. I think that is so important. However I do recognise that we also need  really high quality online provisions for those students who may be unable to come to campus or may feel unsafe coming to campus. So while I want increased opportunity for staff and for students to come to campus safely , I think one thing we have been working really closely with the university on is making sure that students off campus have really good quality wifi, making sure that there is extra time before and after seminars so students have that informal contact with their tutors and can flag up any issues that they raise, in the same way that they normally would if all contact hours were in person.


How does YUSU intend to ensure students living  off campus are treated equally and that their living cost are met?


It’s a really important one , so that is part of the reason as I’ve said, about the wifi . So we have campaigned to ensure that every student living off campus has access to free or subsidise wifi. Because we recognise that many landlords and many providers offer a rubbish service so when the vast majority of your education is online we really have to make sure that students aren’t , you know, prevented from learning by their wifi connection. And similarly with rents, so you know obviously the rebates coming from the university with respect to refunds for students delayed from coming back next term . They won’t be seen by off campus students , so I’m really urging universities to look at what financial support their offering students both on and off campus , and making sure that there aren’t gaps in between provisions and services and support available, because I think it is really important to have equality between students on and off campus . Doesn’t matter where you live , whether in York or elsewhere, we are all facing the same issues. So it is really important that the university listens to those concerns and we will continue to work with them to ensure they do that.


What sort of support and/or pushback has YUSU had from the government /university?



I’m afraid that the government has been slow to act. They have been slow to set up the on campus testing centres , not only in York but in universities across the country. They have been slow as I’m sure we all understand , as we have all seen , to get guidance out. So many people may remember the day before the student travel window earlier in December happened, the government gave out  new guidance for universities and students about what the return in January would look like. And frankly , one day before students are meant to come leave. That’s simply not good enough. I think the government really has to review its communication strategy ,and be a lot more open and transparent with information to ensure that students ,and in fact all people, all aspects and all groups within our society have access to accurate information as soon as possible. Because it’s incredibly upsetting and frustrating and confusing and frankly expensive for students if plans , whether it be travel or housing or other plans , have to change in the last minute. So I would urge the government to continue to be as up front as possible in the same way we are as a student union trying to communicate as quickly as we can once we hear guidance. I really would urge them, you know, to be as accurate but quick as they can in the guidance they give out to make sure that students are able to plan for the weeks and the months ahead.


What steps has YUSU and other student unions taken with Brexit on the horizon ?


So obviously we are leaving the European Union , in under a month’s time. Personally it’s something I didn’t want , but it is something that we have to plan for and we have to be ready for. I believe there are serious questions for the government in respect of how we can protect the right to travel and right to study and the right to live and work for not only UK students but students coming from the EU. And I hope,  and I am confident, that the university will continue to lobby government at all different levels to ensure that there are no inconveniences for students in our university or any other university , cause I want to ensure that you know students around the world have the right to travel and the right to work and the right to live and study. And you know, as a student union, we will do whatever we can for those who call for greater support for EU students and for freedom of movement because I think that’s really vital for our learning and our wider development that we are able to travel and we are able to study. I’m afraid that the government has to recognise that this is so important for universities and for York, especially in terms of research funding and things like that.

Since we last spoke the UK has gone into lockdown, so I was keen to ask a few questions regarding the present situation. First, what measures has YUSU taken? What work has been done by other student unions? And how has YUSU, and other student unions for that matter, been received by the government and the university?

So obviously this lockdown announcement changes everything and it makes things really tough for students, and one issue that we’re very aware of is the different experiences, and certainly the different times, that students are facing.   We’ve got international students who are paying way over the odds for their education, and that’s the same for other universities. So we’re really looking at maximising the amount of income, and essentially protecting student’s incomes at the moment. I’m really pleased that we were able to secure the reopening of the Emergency Student Support Fund earlier in January, and that there’s another one later this month, as that funding is really, really important. Many students will have lost out on part-time jobs and lots of income streams.  It is really important that as a Student Union we can work with the university to create those opportunities for students to be able to pay their rent and buy equipment and other necessary things, because obviously we’re all learning online so there are plenty of new challenges there.

In terms of our campaigns nationally to lobby the government for change, we absolutely have to work with other student unions, because the issues that students face here in York are the same as the rest of the country. So we’re working really closely with other student unions to get action in terms of more government support. Yesterday, the government announced £50 million for students in England, which is good – it’s a start – but when you look at Wales (which has a population a lot smaller than England and has announced 30 million), if you clearly look at those figures and how they work out per person, the funding in England is pretty low, so we’re very much advocating for more funding and more targeted funding, so that students are supported. The main things that students are sharing with us in terms of their anxieties are very much about off-campus rents, because obviously nothing’s being done about helping students pay their rent when they’re not able to return, so that is really the main issue. I’m really pleased that we are working locally to find solutions with the council in York and with the university, but for those massive national issues and big questions, we’re working with other student unions to pressure the government.

Just to pick up on that point where you were noting the severity between Wales doing their best with a population of 3 million as opposed to England having over 50 million, what would you say would be more acceptable levels of funding, or what kind of support would you and the other student unions be looking at? What kind of figure or number would be acceptable in your opinion?

The funding announcement in Wales works out at around £400 per student on average – obviously that’s dependent, as students from wealthier backgrounds won’t need support and some students will frankly need more support than that £400 figure, but if that similar sort of figure was to be applied to students in England that would be about £750 million. I fully appreciate that that’s a large sum of money, it’s a lot of money, and that it is a big ask of the government, but we’re certainly going to ask them for it because that’s what our students need. But you know, to any critics who say that that is too much money, I would say to look at the support they’ve provided to businesses through the furlough scheme. They’ve provided plenty of industries with support –rightly so and I’m pleased they’ve done that  – but they should really expand that support to students, given the unique position that students are in of not having income, and being away from their parents while facing other challenges.

There’s also something related to this point, because we’ve discussed the fact that international students are obviously paying quite a bit and I know that in the past you, and others, have noted in a critical way the fact that UK students and European students are still paying, and it’s quite a lot considering that we are not getting that full university experience. So I was wondering whether there’s any indication that progress is being made in terms of lowering the tuition fee, or whether the university seem open to a way we can receive a bit more funding, or how much, in a sense, do you think that’s a realistic goal at this point, or do you just see a sort of a wall being put in place, and that the university are saying they’re absolutely not going to lower the tuition fees or consider any more funding?

So tuition fees are a really complex issue. Governments of all different parties in the UK have introduced tuition fees and to varying degrees – we’ve now ended up with tuition fees for home students being £9250, and for international students at York I think the highest amount of tuition per year is £34,000 for medical students, which is an extortionate amount of money. My personal view is that students should not be paying tuition fees. I think we should have a completely different view in terms of policy, have a different view of how we support people into higher education.  I don’t think there should be fees. But, in terms of our Student Union’s approach as a whole and other student unions (because I speak with presidents in all other universities frequently), we very much feel that the government needs to step in and act, because at the moment universities are very much being abandoned and left to support students, and while I absolutely think that universities should support students, and they are supporting students in different ways, the government is the only body who are able to bring that support for students. To give an example, if we were to halve tuition fees tomorrow – to, say, £4,500 or something like that – then speaking generally for all universities, they would go bankrupt, because they still have the same level of staffing costs (that’s the biggest cost for universities), they’ve still have students living on campus and bills, and there are lots of other things and other projects. So it really is critical, I think, that people focus on the responsibility of the government to act, and to recognise actually that universities can only do so much. Where we can, we will pressure universities in terms of hardship funding and getting extra support for students, but I really do think that the latest announcements we’ve seen from the government have just shown that they’re really not targeting the required levels in terms of sustained support for students.

How can students within the university help YUSU and other student unions,  put pressure on governments – how can that be done?

We’re influencing at all different levels, so sometimes the best approach is to sign petitions that you might see on social media about a variety of things, whether that’s on assessments and grades or student finances. Certainly, you know, as a Student Union we’ve been consulting students, and we’ve recently sent out consultations and received over 600 responses and detailed accounts. Any form of evidence and insight that we get into students’ lives, how students are finding the current restrictions, and their current finances, is really important, because we can then present those arguments to the university and to the government, with an evidence base to prove why we need that extra support. So in terms of how students can really help: it’s engaging with us and how we support students, and it’s also engaging with petitions, with the talks and webinars that we hold as a Student Union, to hold our university leaders to account.