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Opinion | Current students at Bristol Uni have received the raw end of the deal

While the University of Bristol has offered generous financial incentives to prospective students, current students have been left by the wayside despite shouldering the brunt of university during the pandemic.

By Alice Clarke, Third Year, History

While the University of Bristol has offered generous financial incentives to prospective students, current students have been left by the wayside despite shouldering the brunt of the University's shortcomings during the pandemic.

The ‘special deferral package' on offer consists of a £3,600 bursary and a rent reduction of up to £7,000 in university accommodation. After record numbers of A-Level students met their offers this August, the University has been left unable to house all incoming first-years.

The incentive offers students who defer their entry until 2022 the option of a near £11,000 sum and is a welcome consolation to those potentially left without university accommodation for 2021. However, in the year just gone, many current students pushed for financial compensation of a similar scale through the Bristol Rent Strike and Fee Justice Now campaign, only to be met with extreme push back.

The package offered to incoming students has only highlighted inconsistency in their approach to finances. Though it shouldn't be surprising that the University is a business and therefore acts as such, it is nonetheless disappointing and demoralising as a current student.

After 18 months of disruption and multiple intakes of students impacted by the pandemic, it is a surprise to see the University so gladly offering money to future students despite continual pushback at any questions of fee or rent refunds for current students. After all, they have not been so generous to us.

This isn't a case of a “we suffered so everyone should” mentality or an either/or situation. The deferral packages should be accepted as justified compensation for the inconvenience experienced by many prospective offer holders. Yet, whilst current students have been offered nothing of the sort, we should not just simply let this one pass.  

Over the past 18 months, the university experience has been difficult, draining and tough

Since the first national lockdown was announced on 23 March 2020, university students have had nearly their entirety of teaching online. It isn’t contrary or despondent to say that virtual learning has not been up to the same standard as in-person teaching, nor has it been easier.

For both students and staff over the past 18 months, the university experience has been difficult, draining and tough. For students however this, in contrast to previous years, cursory experience has come at the price of £9,250 a year. It is unfair and insulting for universities to argue that our experience hasn’t been compromised even in the slightest. Yet no compensation has been offered to the thousands of students affected.

When students returned to Bristol in September 2020, accommodation was filled under the pretence of a safe return to campus and the importance of students' in-person presence for blended learning.  Yet it soon became apparent that it had not been essential nor safe for students to return, with many isolating in halls and  online learning for most.

From the outset of the strike, students were told the University was too financially unstable to possibly meet any financial demands

On 24 October 2020 over 1,000 students in halls at the University withheld their rent, making it one of the largest rent strikes in recent years. The strike demanded a 30 per cent reduction in rent, non-penalty contract releases and improved mental health provision for those isolating in halls.

From the outset of the strike, students were told the University was too financially unstable to possibly meet any financial demands.

In November, striking students in receipt of bursaries were emailed and told that if their rent remained outstanding, their bursary payments would be used to offset the amount. After this tactic was publicised by the Rent Strike and challenged by the SU, within days the University had backtracked on this.

In May, in the midst of the impending exam period, striking students were threatened with third party debt collectors. Again, after pushback, the University delayed this measure.

After a full academic year of strike action, bit by bit, the campaign won £15 million in rent reductions for those in halls. These reductions were hard won, striking students faced constant push back from the university; it is hard to believe any such rebates would have been made without pressure from students.

University management consistently told rent strikers that there just was no cash to spare. It took student resilience and restraint to win these reductions despite extreme pressure from the University.

While it is great to see future students being compensated for a different issue without having to push as hard, it is a reminder of the contempt many current students have felt in contrast. It seems the University finds it easier to hand out cash incentives when it best suits them in order to save face.

The wins of the rent strike last year offered support for those in halls, however most students will have fallen outside of this bracket. Questions of tuition fee refunds or reductions have been raised by students across the country since the beginning of the pandemic, and largely ignored.

It is a tough pill to swallow that most likely all three years of my degree will have been compromised due to the pandemic. It is an even tougher pill to swallow that the University has offered no compensation or “special package” for this.

Two cohorts have now graduated during Coronavirus. Third year students have had the majority of their degrees disrupted by it. What the University of Bristol needs to do now is to focus on their current student body and consider how fairly they have been treated. It feels much like we have got the raw end of the deal.

"We have invested considerably in our response to the pandemic"

Commenting on this situation, a spokesperson for the University said: ‘We fully appreciate that this situation may feel unfair to some students whose university experience has been disrupted by the pandemic. However, the University has always acted in the best interests of its student body as a whole and will continue to do so.

‘The overall package of additional Covid-related support for students in the last academic year – one of the most generous in the higher education sector - far outweighs the potential cost of the deferral package on offer to a small number of new students.

‘It hasn’t been offered to all new students, just those in three subject areas, and so the number of people choosing to defer will be relatively small.

‘We decided to offer such a package in Life Sciences, Biological Sciences and Economics so that we can positively manage the learning and student experience for not only those students, but also for students in other years who will be sharing the same teaching spaces and resources.

‘We have invested considerably in our response to the pandemic. This includes transforming our digital capacity, adapting our support services to ensure they can be accessed remotely, making campus Covid-secure to keep students and staff safe. We also introduced a Coronavirus Impact Fund to support students experiencing financial hardship as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.

‘Recognising the impact the pandemic has had on those living in halls of residence, we provided rent rebates at different points throughout the year and extended our income collection processes by three months to give adequate time to extend financial support to those who need it.

‘All students had access to uncapped financial hardship funds last year and we made additional bursaries available to students in all accommodation types who are less likely to have financial support from others.

‘Despite the challenging circumstances, we were able to deliver the same high-quality learning outcomes for our students last year and as such will not be offering blanket tuition fee refunds. However, in line with the guidance given to students by the Office for Students, we continue to consider students’ concerns on a case-by-case basis through our established procedures.’

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