The class of 2020 will be paying the price of this pandemic for decades

Students wearing face masks take part in a protest in Westminster in London over the government's ha

Students protesting in Westminster over the government's handling of A-level results, university provision and bleak employment prospects - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Going off to university should be such an exciting time in a young person’s life. A new city, new friends, new opportunities and the chance to live away from home, usually for the first time. 

For the 105,000 Londoners who were offered a university place last September, the reality has fallen far short of the dream.

These are the same young people who’ve already had their A-levels cancelled, been given results for exams they never took and, in some cases, had their hard-won university place taken away thanks to algorithms designed by strangers.  

They set off in September around the country, despite Labour repeatedly urging the government to get a grip on test and trace before students returned. 

Many found themselves locked down in student accommodation with a group of strangers, paying thousands of pounds in fees and accommodation costs whilst having lessons on a screen they could have done from home. 

Many struggled with the symptoms of Covid-19 without the support of their family. 

The toll on mental health has been huge and is ongoing even as their debt mountain builds. University wellbeing services are coming under increasing pressure and financial hardship funds are unable to meet growing demands. 

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With Covid-19 cases at record levels and the NHS at crisis point, it’s right that students haven’t physically returned to campuses this January. But it’s not right that they should still be paying for the housing that the government is telling them not to use. 

A growing number of universities are stepping up and offering rent refunds or extended contracts. That’s welcome but it only covers around 20% of students so far. This national crisis shouldn’t become a postcode lottery and it shouldn’t simply be down to individual housing providers to find a fair solution.

Where is the government and where is the leadership? Many of these problems were avoidable – university staff warned repeatedly that the return to face to face teaching last autumn would make the spread of the virus worse. Yet at every opportunity throughout this pandemic Boris Johnson and his hapless education secretary Gavin Williamson have been too slow to act and too slow to listen. 

Now they’ve lost control of the virus and placed students in an impossible position – facing huge restrictions to their education and social life but still paying full fees and rent.  

The class of 2020 will be paying the price of this pandemic for decades. Johnson’s government needs to step up now, prioritise working with universities and ensure our young people get the support they deserve.

  • Catherine West is MP for Hornsey and Wood Green.
'Trailblazer': Catherine West, now the MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, is a former leader of Islingto

MP Catherine West wants university students housing costs refunded or extended - Credit: Chris McAndrew ( CC BY 3.0)

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