Don’t overlook students and their pandemic plight – Bill Carmichael

THIS pandemic has hit lots of people very hard – most notably the families of more than 100,000 victims who have lost their lives due to Covid-19.

Schools and universities continue to pay a heavy price for the pandemic, but what more can be to help 'Generation Covid'?
Schools and universities continue to pay a heavy price for the pandemic, but what more can be to help 'Generation Covid'?

Other victims of this disease have been elderly and infirm residents of care homes who have been deprived of contact with their loved ones for over a year.

And school children have been badly hit too, with lessons disrupted and the inequalities between the haves and have nots widening alarmingly.

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The impact on businesses should not be underestimated too, with many firms struggling to survive, jobs lost and livelihoods destroyed.

Schools and universities continue to pay a heavy price for the pandemic, but what more can be to help 'Generation Covid'?

But there is another segment of the population who have been disadvantaged over the last 15 months and whose plight gets less attention – and it is something I have been able to observe quite closely during the lockdown.

I am referring to students, and there is a little doubt that the present cohort at our universities have been given a very raw deal indeed.

One of the pleasures of working in higher education is each September meeting freshers straight from school, who range from the cocky know-it-alls to those shy characters who are too terrified to open their mouths.

Over the following three years it is a delight to see them grow and mature, gain confidence in their own talents and an understanding of their own limitations, and we are often privileged to witness incredible changes.

Schools and universities continue to pay a heavy price for the pandemic, but what more can be to help 'Generation Covid'?

At the end of their courses we see them at the graduation ceremonies, surrounded by family and friends bursting with pride. By some almost magical process of metamorphosis, the timid, frightened caterpillars we met in year one, have transformed themselves into gorgeous professional butterflies, who we can wave off into the competitive workplace, confident that they are more than capable of holding their own.

Those years between the ages of 18 to 23 represent the transition from childhood to fully formed adult, and for those lucky enough to attend, university plays a big part in that.

There are many important lessons to be learned in addition to the academic ones. How to live independently, cook and clean and do your own laundry. How to make friends from strangers, fall in and out of love, and deal with disappointment and rejection.

There is also a good deal of hard partying going on too – but even here vital life lessons are learned, such as when is it a good idea to say no to another drink.

Above all it sees a dramatic widening of intellectual horizons, staying up through the night to discuss art, philosophy and politics, disputing with your friends and sharpening your arguments through the challenges of others, listening to a thrilling piece of music or reading a poem you have never encountered before that moves you to tears.

The current cohort of students have missed out on many of these things. Many have been sent home and lectures and seminars have moved online. Instead of experiencing the stimulation of new friends and new places, they are stuck at home with mum and dad, staring at a computer screen for hours a day.

Even more unfortunate are students who found themselves living alone for months on end. At the height of the lockdown, I talked online to an overseas student whose flatmates had all moved out but who could not get a flight to take her home. She had not spoken to another person face to face for six weeks.

Yet these students have still had to pay more than £9,000 a year for what has basically become a correspondence course, and pleas for a rebate on tuition fees have fallen on deaf ears. Sure, many universities have tried to make online learning as interesting as possible, but there is little doubt it is an inferior experience to what went before.

Many students have been forced to pay private landlords for properties they were unable to live in. One student I know was paying more in rent for a tiny room in a terraced house that she couldn’t even visit= than I pay in mortgage payments for a five-bedroom house.

Students in their final year now enter a difficult labour market, burdened by debt and facing high rents and low wages if they wish to live independently of their parents.

So this horrible pandemic has had 
lots of victims who deserve our sympathy, but spare a small thought for those 
young people who, I suspect, in future years will become known as ‘Generation Covid’.

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