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‘University was supposed to be a fairytale – but it’s been a nightmare’

university education strikes
university education strikes

Next year’s graduates will have lost nearly two out of five teaching days after their education was blighted by lockdowns and strikes.

A student who started in September 2020 would have lost 25 weeks of in-person learning because of the disruption, according to the Intergenerational Foundation, a think tank, based on a typical three-year course with 22 weeks of teaching a year.

University workers are currently midway through a round of strikes, with the next one taking place on November 30.

Students have complained of the experience leaving the feeling “short-changed” and wanting compensation. Some 16 days were lost to teaching staff strikes between September 2020 and November 2022. This came on top of a year of remote learning following lockdown. A 2023 graduate spent their whole first year under remote learning.

Francesca Eke, 21, switched courses after one year in March 2020, just as the pandemic hit, and did not find herself back in a lecture theatre until September 2021. She said the 18-month gap between in-person lectures “massively affected her performance”.

She added: “I absolutely want my money back. The university experience I was sold seems like a fairytale – it’s actually been a nightmare.”

Despite the calls for refunds, universities have instead lobbied for tuition fees to increase to levels paid by foreign students, while only handing out £800,000 in refunds to disaffected students in 2021.

Liz Emerson, of the Intergenerational Foundation, said students’ interests had “not been recognised” in disputes over lecturer pensions and pay, which led to the latest round of industrial action.

She added: “This cohort were locked in their halls, sent home, taught online, brought back, ghosted by their institutions and now let down again by lecturers. Their mental health has declined dramatically while they face the same cost of living crisis as the rest of us.”

Bea Wilkinson - Paul Cooper
Bea Wilkinson - Paul Cooper

‘We’re paying for a service we’re not getting’

Final year geography student Bea Wilkinson, 21, said the experience of successive strikes and Covid disruption had left her “disillusioned with the whole style of learning”. She added: “I understand why they are striking and I do empathise, but we are paying for a service that we aren’t really getting.”

Outside of teaching, strike action has also forbidden lecturers from answering emails or marking exams.

Ms Wilkinson added: “It’s not even really missing content, but more so not having lecturers replying to emails near exam deadlines. The fact this will continue into the new year is a huge cause for concern – especially with dissertation deadlines looming.”

‘We’re trying to piece together our education’

University of Exeter student Hermione Blandford, 21, said she felt “shortchanged” by the experience and she was pessimistic about the chance of a refund.

She said: “Although it feels like we've been shortchanged, realistically I know nothing's going to change no matter the validity of what we've been through so I've kind of already made my peace with it.

Hermione Blandford - JAY WILLIAMS
Hermione Blandford - JAY WILLIAMS

"Universities are a business and the mass scale of affected people means they're only going to be able to give out compensation to those with extenuating circumstances.”

The majority of the days lost to strikes are fewer than those lost to lockdowns, but the disruption caused by industrial action has left some students missing key information to make sense of their course.

Ms Blandford added: “For one of my modules, the way the strike days have fallen has wiped out the lectures and seminars for two weeks. It's like we're trying to piece together the right lecture for the missed seminar.”

Joe Anderson, 21, a final year student at Newcastle University, said it was “ridiculous” students who were freshers during the 2021 lockdown were charged full price for facilities that were “not available for a year”. He added: “If Covid wasn’t bad enough, once we thought we were going back to ‘normal’, we were told that there would be strikes.

“In my very first lecture of the second semester, we were told a particular module was going to be one of the hardest on the course. In the same hour, the lecturer told us he’d be striking for the next three weeks.”

Joe Anderson - Lorne Campbell
Joe Anderson - Lorne Campbell

A spokesman for Universities UK, the trade body for higher education institutions, said unhappy students should first contact their university using their complaints procedure, and escalate matters to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator if necessary.

They added: “We are extremely proud of how our universities adapted and thrived in the adverse circumstances of the pandemic, with the overwhelming majority of students still receiving a world-class education in spite of the challenges they faced.

“Universities took all possible steps to mitigate and prevent education loss during these disruptions to ensure that students still left with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed beyond the classroom. Universities have similar processes in place which enable them to minimise the disruption to learning caused by industrial action.”

University of Exeter and Newcastle University were contacted for comment.