Last week some of your sabbatical officers secured a meeting with Universities Minister Michelle Donelan to raise concerns that students have raised with us over the last few weeks.
Alex (VP Women) outlines the key issues we discussed and our next steps going forward.
The latest national lockdown has created a period of extreme stress and chaos for students across the globe, leading to uncertainty about the future of their exams and travel plans. Oxford SU has spent the past two weeks sifting through the numerous, occasionally contradictory, communications and edicts issued from every level of the Higher Education sector.
At a certain point, I decided the best course of action to be an effective lobbyist for students was to get the word from the source, so I reached out to the Universities Minister Michelle Donelan MP. The Minister was extremely accommodating, setting up a meeting with our sabbatical team for to discuss our mutual concerns.
The meeting was very productive, and we were able to express our concerns and get the Minister’s input on a range of subjects. These concerns centred broadly around three main topics: mental health support, exams and mitigation, and fees and rent.
We were encouraged to see that the Minister had put considerable thought into all three of these policy areas and in many cases was already working on plans to address these concerns to be announced in the coming weeks.
The Minister agreed that student mental health needs to remain at the top of the agenda, and recognised that this needs to be prioritised even as (especially) many students remain in their vacation residencies for the continuing lockdown. She is particularly concerned about students starting this year, as this transition is difficult at the best of times, and informed us that she is working with the Office for Students on the wellbeing resource Studentspace, as well as creating an Education Mental Health Task Force.
Oxford SU Sabbs updated her on the work we have been doing with the Oxford Mental Health Task Force, and she was keen for us to share with her any best practices we can come up with. I expressed my concerns that students with sub-clinical mental health problems or undiagnosed conditions were going to fall through the cracks, and she told me that she agrees this is a critical issue. She emphasised that there needs to be a concerted effort on all parts to encourage students to reach out to their GPs and universities to receive care, as well as a proactive stance from Universities. Finally, the Minister acknowledged that access to student hardship funds will play a key role in all of this response.
Next, we asked her opinion on what should be done to ensure students are not negatively impacted by the pandemic in terms of their marks or the quality of their education. The Minister stressed that universities have free autonomy to assess as they please so long as they are working within the parameters set by oversight bodies, which limits what the Government can do to intervene with innovative solutions. She did however state that she agrees that universities should not allow this crisis to negatively affect marks and should consider implementing mitigating policies. At the same time, she believes it is vital that students are receiving access to the same standards of education and material they would normally so that this year’s leavers are not stigmatised upon entering the job market.
On the issue of fees, the Minister stated that the Government sets the top level of fees and universities should only continue to expect this level of fee payment if they believe the quality of teaching has been on par, for example giving students the same number of teaching hours. If students believe they have not received an adequate level of education to justify their fees, the Minister encouraged students to go through the formal complaints procedure via the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA).
We asked what the Minister and the Government plan on doing to ensure medical students and student nurses are appropriately compensated for their critical work on the front lines of this crisis. She said that medical students should be receiving pay and access to pensions for their work, and said that an announcement on this issue would be coming out soon. She also noted that we do not want this vital work to get in the way of their education and leave them less well prepared for the next steps in their careers.
While much of this will continue to require active lobbying on our part, we were extremely thankful for the opportunity to sit down with the Minister and better understand her positions on specific policy issues at this given time. Oxford SU believes this clarity will enable us to be more confident and effective in our lobbying efforts on behalf of students. We reinforced to the minister the importance of meeting student representatives from Student Unions across the country and NUS to ensure the key concerns of students are understood.
As always, we completely empathise with the stress, anxiety, and anger the student body is feeling at this juncture and want to assure you that we are working hard for you each day. You are always free to reach out to us with concerns you have, or to get in touch with our Student Advice service to receive free, independent advice about individual concerns. Though the needs of students always seem to come last in this pandemic, please know that they come first for us.
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