I have been fascinated by the signs appearing in halls of residence windows as students are forced to self-isolate: “Send weed”, “Fuck Tory scum”… But the one that got to me was recycling a meme: “I’m claustrophobic, Darren.”
I would be claustrophobic, too, if I was confined to one room while spending thousands of pounds for a university education. Whoever you are, whatever you are studying, no one can think that what is happening to you right now is OK.
At this point it is customary for writers to relive their own wild uni (for we are all Australian now) years. Don’t worry: I won’t. When I first went to college I was older than most undergraduates and had a child. But I was a student again recently, in London, and, my God, did I know how much lectures and tutorials cost. Some of my fellow students worked out the hourly rate. The only people who lived in halls were very wealthy international students, some of whom had drivers. This was another world to me.
The student experience is not a monolith, then, but it is clear that this generation have been whacked in every possible way and are now being held hostage by institutions and landlords who need their money. This is an education in pure cynicism. It is an absolute disgrace.
Some of this is the government’s fault, of course: the absolute failure to plan for what was easily predictable; the bowing down to the market as landlords trap students into costly accommodation; a complete denial about what Covid means long-term – mass unemployment for young people. More than this, however, it is the apotheosis of what education has become: an exam factory where we imprison teenagers in new-build panopticons, telling them that without a degree their futures are none too bright.
Individual academics have spent hours counselling their charges and trying to boost their morale. I have seen how seriously they take their duty of care, but they are hampered by a management that commodified tertiary education years ago while everyone burbled nonsense about competing with Singapore or South Korea. As for primary and secondary education, they have been victims of the Tories’ ever more punitive mindset, assessing six-year-olds, obsessed with grammar schools and always regarding state education as something best avoided.
Ken Robinson, the charismatic educationist who died recently, used to write to me and was a breath of fresh air. He understood the value of creativity in schools. As he said: “Our education system has mined our minds in the way we strip-mined the earth for a particular commodity. We have to rethink the fundamental principles in which we are educating our children.”
He understood that because none of us really know what to do any more, parents end up subscribing to an outdated idea: that university guarantees a good job. It doesn’t. So he warned of testing and too much homework as “the relentless preparation for a false goal”.
If Covid is a chance to reset, and it could be, what the hell are we doing? Leaving aside physical health, we are clearly causing huge mental health problems for our youth. All of us have been subject to tremendously contradictory messages – none more so than teenagers, admonished for years for staring at their phones and now told they can only get educated online. The practicalities for our artists and scientists are again neglected.
I hold Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings, who ran the Department for Education with a Maoist zeal, responsible for our imaginative impoverishment in this crisis.
Some university students will surely go home, possibly killing a granny or two, and some will stick it out, as they have been told that next year it will be even harder to get a place. Most will feel abandoned, as if there is no one in charge – because there isn’t.
This is a complete and utter breakdown of systems that have not been coordinated in any way. If the government did not talk to the universities about the plans for the start of the academic year, then why did the colleges accept this situation except out of financial duress? If the government did, what did it think the impact would be? Most students believed there would mostly be online teaching but at least some face to face, and now they are told: no, nada.
The lesson they are learning must be simply: don’t trust anyone. This may well be an unprecedented situation but not an unpredictable one. Of course many young people will not suffer badly from the virus, but “long Covid” is still not something we know enough about.
The government is already obsessing about Christmas, but that’s the least of it. This generation needs maximum support not just for now but for years to come.
“There ain’t half been some clever bastards,” that philosopher-king Ian Dury used to say. “Probably got help from their mum (who had help from her mum) … Now that we’ve had some. Let’s hope that there’s lots more to come.”
Yes, there will be. But only if we stop lying to them.