Much like buying petrol, paying council tax or having a West Ham season ticket, going to university has never really offered value for money. In days past, attending a gloriously packaged ‘seat of learning’, meant attending a cold, uninviting lecture hall once a week where you took a welcome break from perfecting the art of youth alcoholism as you struggled to comprehend the monotone, pale, male expert, with more letters after his name than I have hairs on my head.

The quality of provision has not changed much in decades, except for one major factor: the charging of tuition fees. It used to be the case that the main revenue stream was education. Now that has been sidelined and is nothing more than a by-product as these businesses build up their portfolios of prime real estate and fleece the students not only through ‘learning’ but by renting out clinical, basic, borstal-like places to rest their heads.

With many universities now being pretty much locked down as we continue to use ‘because of Covid’ as an excuse for incompetence and lack of delivery, many halls of residence are little more than glorified prisons as students are forced, against their will, to hole up and shut up as, in recompense, they are offered a couple of lectures a week via Zoom as the universities tout the cumbersome ‘to keep you safe’ nonsensical rhetoric.

The irony comes as historically students like little more than sticking it to the man. Be it the cancelling of speakers they disagree with, the ripping down of statues or banning clapping as crowdthink seeps into every pore, yet, under house arrest, there is little more than distant bleating of how unfair the whole situation is and, for once, I agree wholeheartedly.

‘Because of Covid’ is now becoming the go to injury time winner. Why are businesses not answering the phone? Because of Covid. Why are shops understaffed or limiting opening hours? Because of Covid. Why are lectures not running and are our students locked up like animals? Because of Covid. Maybe the student body should start a legal action refusing to pay for this year’s fees and rent ‘because of Covid’. The students are not getting value for money and are being imprisoned as they, along with others of fun-loving age, are unfairly being castigated for the supposed second wave, despite being mithered to get back to business weeks ago by initiatives including the eat out to help out scheme.

Many schools continue to see attending university as the great leveller of the class system as many, myself included, blaze a trail by being the first of their kin to go to university. Yet the reality is that, for many, if not most, attending university now is little more than an ego-fuelled public display of your intellect. The problem is that it has lost its USP and is no longer unique as most are now in receipt of a degree. Even in the late 1990s, with a degree from Southbank (which is like trying to win the Ballon d'Or while playing for Shrewsbury) I found myself, fresh after graduation, labouring on a building site, which is exactly what I was doing prior to starting, only now saddled with thousands of pounds of debt. Those I see now who are young and relatively affluent are the tradespeople: they learnt a trade and a skill that is, and will always be, in demand, as they earn a fair bob in unfashionable industries such as plumbing, carpentry and plastering. They have proved themselves the true intellectuals as they jump on the property ladder and enjoy foreign holidays while the supposed literati are saddled with decades of debt as they thrash about, in a saturated marketplace, to source gainful employ.

Students, despite the bad press, need our help. Theirs is a thankless lot, bar the outliers who will enter investment banks and be enriched beyond their wildest dreams - and arguably, it is not the degree that gets them there, but the old boys’ network and Daddy’s contacts. For the average bog-standard student, they will sit in their cold, dingy cells, watch a couple of lectures on a sketchy internet connection and then leave owing tens of thousands of pounds they will struggle to pay back over their lifetime, as they undertake unskilled labour and dream in vain of owning their own house one day. To charge them, at this time, in this pandemic, for this offering, is lunacy and the government needs to decree that university students have all fees cancelled for the previous year, as well as rent, as they make a tokenistic gesture to support this industry built on sinking sand. Heck, they could even justify such expenditure by citing their reason for such a humanitarian act as ‘because of Covid' it works elsewhere, so let’s sprinkle some of the financial fairy dust on those who were sold a dream that is rapidly turning into anything but.

  • Brett Ellis is a teacher