As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage on, more and more people are experiencing unexpected disruptions to their daily life. Students, in particular, have been left to adapt to a new way of working via zoom lectures, tutorials over email and using the materials they have available inside their home. An unpredicted change may appear as rife with creative inspiration, as many have used quarantine as an excuse to dress up at home, experiment with their make-up or learn a new recipe. For final year and postgraduate students, however, this new way of working could dramatically impact their final result and degree qualification.
University of the Arts London students refuse to keep quiet in their self-isolation struggle, and today they launch a new campaign across social media called #PauseorPay, asking the university to offer students the choice between suspending their studies until they have full and safe access to resources, or fee compensation which accurately reflects the four weeks lost to industrial strike action and eight weeks lost to the coronavirus pandemic.
We spoke to Lili Limmer, one of the students organising the UAL action group, who is concerned by the university’s lack of action: “We’ve been voicing our concerns about this issue since the first email we received on the 23rd of February from senior management letting us know that the university planned to cancel all physical degree shows, graduation ceremonies and move our entire final term into an ‘online learning’ module. This included changing our final project, submission and assessment with just weeks until our deadlines. Since then we’ve received contradictory and erratic communication every other week. Students at different colleges are being told different things in regards to extensions and degree shows, I started the action group on Facebook when senior management and the administration team stopped responding to my emails. The university has not involved the student body with the decision making process at any stage – in fact, they have actively ignored our concerns and made it impossible for us to even reach them at times. Our student union officers were excluded from action meetings and our elected course representatives have not been asked to participate in any way.”
The campaign comes after weeks of ignored emails from university staff and a number of open letters published by various courses. Similarly, students across the UK have published similar letters after receiving equally poor responses from their university’s governing body.
It’s no wonder the students feel misled, as the responses they’ve received from course administrators have felt tone-deaf to the current global crisis. In one email, where students were told that the pandemic would not qualify as appropriate grounds for extenuating circumstances, university officials told students that they “can’t wait to see your creative responses” to the pandemic, with no reference to the concerns raised.
We are in grave danger of leaving this institution with nothing more than a pile of debt.
The students believe their studies have been detrimentally impacted, citing the lack of access to technical workshops, materials and library resources as particularly damaging to their potential grade and learning experience. In a survey of 400 UAL postgraduate students, a staggering 74% said they felt the online submission alternative they had been offered is an insufficient means of assessment for their type of work.
Another alarming statistic found from the survey was that two-thirds of respondents reported that due to the pandemic, the current state of their mental health is affecting their creative and learning processes. UAL students have asked for an expansion to the mental health services provided in order to compensate for the anxiety students may feel upon returning to their studies.
This reaction is to be expected after weeks of uncertainty as students failed to receive any communication from their course leaders, even after parts of their studies had already been cancelled. Faith Marisela Hamacher, a final year Performance Design and Practice student at Central Saint Martins, faced disappointment when her final play had to be cancelled due to government restrictions on gatherings. The play incorporated costumes, sets and lighting designs by PDP students along with the BA Acting course.
“I was lucky to have finished my garments,” Hamacher explains, “but all of my work, my sketchbooks and my computer files are still stuck in the university so I’m unable to create the digital portfolio I’ve been asked to submit. With a degree like performance, it’s important that our work is seen and assessed live as it’s intended to be viewed. Without the live performance, details in costume design, lighting set ups and sets will not have the desired impact that we worked so hard to achieve.”
The open letters published include a vast number of additional issues the pandemic has created for students, including visa expirations for international students (whose student visas expire in October 2020, but whose graduations have been indefinitely postponed until ‘autumn 2020’), rent reductions for those living in UAL halls, and a rejection of the digital degree show that students have been offered in place of the highly-anticipated degree show the university puts on for final year students each year.
“The main thing I’m concerned about is how much of our degree is being taken from us,” says Ellie Goodman, an MA Fashion Journalism student, “because we’re only on a one year course, we are losing at least 1/3 of our in-person teaching. This massively reduces our potential to network and meet employers when they come to visit as online forums make it much harder to leave a lasting impression and have your voice heard. What feels the worst, though, is the University’s apparent inability to listen to, and take stock of, what students are asking for. We pay hundreds of thousands of pounds every year for the privilege of attending this institution and the governors and university itself owe us a duty of care that goes above and beyond their monetary gain. I understand the financial side of it is not black and white but the university has a lot of money, that’s no secret, and students deserve to be heard and supported throughout these unprecedented times.”
While the students acknowledge the unpredictability of the pandemic for the university, they refuse to have their requests regarding their studies silenced. The #PauseorPay campaign, they hope, will raise awareness of the students’ issues and will make their open letters and petitions indisputable.
“Unlike other academic degrees, a certificate from an arts institution does not open up any opportunities for graduates – we came to UAL with the intention of creating a physical product that we would be given the opportunity to showcase at a physical degree show to industry connections. We are in grave danger of leaving this institution with nothing more than a pile of debt. The coronavirus pandemic is something that has shaken up all of our lives in unimaginable ways and we did not expect UAL to be able to predict something of this magnitude, nor to prevent it. However, we feel shocked by their management of the circumstances and particularly taken aback by their attitude to final year students,” says Limmer.
“The university must agree, in writing, to hold regular and frequent open meetings with the student body – as is being done at other higher education institutions. The size and diversity of UAL necessitates a de-centralised and fully inclusive decision making process.”