Following on from last year’s plea for Alumni to donate to crowdfund a COVID-19 hardship fund, Loughborough University last week announced their newest fundraising initiative.

“The £10k Challenge” , is attempting to get staff and students to do a sponsored walk to raise a total of £10,000 to fund their own mental healthcare! This sum, barely over the tuition fee of a single student for one year, clearly shows two things. Firstly, university management clearly has no clue of the scale of the mental health crisis on campus.  Secondly solving it is not a priority for them.

For students, there has been nearly a year of lockdown, and yet for only 3 months have they been given any assurance that their individual performance will not be affected.

The individual “No Detriment” policy has not returned for this academic year. This throws those suffering from the crisis into the fire. All this in order to “maintain robust standards”, as the Vice Chancellor claimed. Many students are holed up in tiny rooms in halls, unable to meet friends and family. Others have been unable to return to campus, and many more are weeks behind schedule because of the difficulties posed by online learning, unable to keep up with workloads. The stresses and expectations placed on students during this pandemic are completely unsustainable, and are a huge trigger for poor mental health. All the university has in response to this is a laughable 6 week rent rebate. 

The student learning conditions seen here are a reflection of staff working conditions. Academic staff have been striking long before the pandemic. The reasons for this are myriad, including intolerable workloads which are a key cause of stress and burnout in the workplace.

The pandemic has only worsened the situation, with little to no support from the universities provided to help ease the increase in workloads caused by the move to online learning.  This fundraiser has been announced a week after academic staff were offered a 0% pay rise. This itself is occurring not long after university support staff were offered the same measly rate! In real terms, this is a pay cut! The gall of the university management has to be seen to be believed. 

Surely, given all the money the Universities have extracted  from students through tuition fees this past year , despite not having to run expensive buildings and labs , means that the money is there to do more than ask students and staff to pay for their own mental health funding. Surely they can do better than begging for donations from alumni. All of which begs the question: where is the money going? What could possibly be more important than the welfare of staff and students? 

Clearly, at least in the minds of the university management, it is money. As a reward for “exceeding all expectations”, Vice Chancellor Allison took home nearly £300,000 last academic year, and is set to take home just as much this year as well! No need to worry though, the university’s remuneration report reminds us “the current financial climate was extremely challenging and it was important that the Vice-Chancellor’s pay reflected the current situation.”

Yet the same extravagant pay was not offered to staff, who do the huge majority of the work. It’s no wonder these people are completely divorced from the reality of day-to-day life on campus: what financial hardship could a man, earning in a year what most workers at the university make in a decade, even face? 

It’s outrageous that University management can continue to skim off the cream at such a time of desperate need. Students cannot accept further attacks on staff working and student learning conditions.  This insulting initiative to work for our own treatment sums up the attitude of the Universities. 

The student union and trade unions on campus should demand that the university open the books – let staff and students go over the finances. Students should be able to see where their tuition fees go. Let us see how much of the rent for halls actually goes into maintaining them. How much of it actually goes towards learning? If there isn’t money in the budget for vital mental health services or hardship funds, if there isn’t money to hire more staff to spread workloads out more fairly and improve the conditions of learning, then the university must prove it. 

Ultimately, this sorry situation is a result not of individual immorality, but of systemic failures and the marketisation of education. By running universities in this way, you inevitably end up putting education and student welfare second. The management is incentivised, above all else, to take in as much money as possible. Until that changes, we will be unable to ensure that student and staff wellbeing is put first. Loughborough student union and any campus trade unions should call for the proper funding of higher education. This can only be achieved with staff and student control over education.

We demand better funding of mental health care on campus. We demand better pay for staff, and rent and tuition fee relief for students. We demand the university management opens the books, and shows us where the money is going. We absolutely refuse to accept these horrific attacks on our well being, while a small clique of do-nothings tell us there’s not enough to go round.

By Deep Sohelia

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