Student management

Student frustration rises as disruption to UK universities drags on

When Jack Calland, a South African masters student at the London School of Economics, learned that a fifth of his classes would be canceled last term, he took matters into his own hands.

Having been charged more than £23,000 for his degree in international development, he decided to suspend his tuition fees in protest at ‘exorbitant’ prices for a reduced course and ‘unacceptable’ conditions for staff.

Another 200 of his peers have sought refunds or refused to pay fees until a long-running industry dispute between teachers and university management is resolved.

Their frustration reflects simmering discontent among UK students who are paying sky-high fees after two years of Covid disruption and are facing new pressure after staff at dozens of universities voted to strike.

“UK charges are [among] highest in the world,” Calland said. “At the same time, academic staff. . . experienced real wage and pension cuts and huge workloads. It’s just not square.

Since 2020, nationwide lockdowns have confined students to their rooms, causing an unprecedented disruption to their education. Today, walkouts over wages, pensions and working conditions continue to threaten to derail apprenticeship even as other sectors get back on their feet.

This month, 40 universities voted to take part in further strikes between June and October, including Durham, Exeter, Edinburgh and Newcastle from the top-flight Russell Group. The University and College Union has warned that the dispute could further erode the quality of teaching as demotivated staff cut back on work or leave.

Students protest fees during lockdown at Edinburgh University © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The disruption adds to the toll on students caused by the pandemic. The proportion of those who are satisfied with their course has dropped sharply, from 83% to 75% between 2020 and 2021, according to the National Student Survey.

According to the Office for National Statistics, two-thirds of undergraduate students in their third year or above said the pandemic had had a significant impact on their academic performance. And nearly a third of all students said their mental health had deteriorated in the past few months.

The current dispute has increased the pressure. “There is a real sense of anger among students,” said Raul Zepeda Gil, a PhD student at King’s College London who chose to ally himself with his striking professors. “Maybe before during Covid there wasn’t because the disruption was so harsh, but I think there will be more appetite [to support the strikes] now.”

Although most universities have resumed face-to-face teaching after classes moved online during the lockdown, students remain concerned about low levels of contact. According to ONS surveys conducted in November and March, at least a quarter of students said they had not had in-person instruction in the past week.

To what extent this is due to classes being canceled or people not showing up is unclear. Chiara Ingravallo, a film and media student at Northumbria University, said the first years had become accustomed to logging on rather than attending lectures. In a recent Friday morning class, only three out of 15 students attended. “People have gotten used to just opening their laptops.”

Ingravallo pays nearly £17,000 a year in fees. This term, five full days of classes have been canceled by strikes, and the disruption has affected access to her tutors, she said. “I think teachers should be treated better, but I also want my money back.”

Overwhelming pressures have led to a drop in academic morale. A recent survey by university and college unions found that two-thirds of staff said they were likely to leave the sector within five years. Among those under 30, that number rose to 81%. Northumbria University said it was determined to “minimize the impact on hard-working students”.

To ease disruption for students, many universities have made concessions such as extending course deadlines and promising to avoid assessment of subjects that have not been taught.

Students and teachers take part in industrial action in London in February © Charlie Bibby/FT

The LSE said it understood students’ concerns about the impact of the industrial action on their studies and was “committed” to supporting them.

“We are providing comprehensive information, resources and guidance to our community, and will continue to review how we can better support our students during this time,” he said.

The measures were “reassuring”, said Evie Croxford, president of the students’ union at the University of Sheffield in northern England, where staff voted to strike. But, she added, the “disjointed” nature of the strikes, with some departments more unionized than others, made it more difficult to support students.

Meanwhile, universities struggle to provide quality education under adverse circumstances. Universities UK, an industry advocacy group which represents 140 members, stressed that undergraduate students who do not feel supported have the right to ‘escalate’ grievances by contacting the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, which assesses student complaints.

He added that UK universities have a global reputation for excellence and urged institutions to ‘work closely together and in a positive way’ to ensure ‘a high quality and positive experience’ for students and staff.

At LSE, staff strikes will not continue into the next term. But Calland remains concerned that poor staff conditions will have a detrimental effect on his long-term learning, and for now he intends to continue withholding the fee.

“It’s not just about getting our money back – it’s part of a wider solidarity to strengthen the hand of staff.” Ultimately, he said, “staff standards are student standards.”