Students across the country were reassured countless times by their universities that it was safe for them to return to campuses this autumn. We were told the rate of infections had dropped enough and face-to-face teaching would resume without risk. Just weeks into first term, we are already seeing thousands of students testing positive and being forced to isolate in their accommodation.
Here in Lancaster, freshers arrived barely weeks ago but already we have seen over 200 confirmed cases on the university campus alone, with a further 1,000 students self-isolating – one sixth of those living in halls. Management in higher education have had since March to plan for the return of students yet Lancaster University has failed to make use of this time.
As boasted by the university on their website, Lancaster is home to students from 142 countries, but with only 59 of those exempt from a 2 week isolation period, campus was always going to see high levels of students self-isolation from the start.
However, the university’s drive for rental income, especially after students successfully won millions in reductions following a lockdown rent strike, has meant they have coaxed students back with no effective plan in place for those obligated to isolate upon their arrival.
The university saw this as an opportunity to profit from vulnerable students instead of prioritising their welfare. A little over a week ago, it was reported by student media that Lancaster University was charging self-isolating students £17.95 per day for a food box – containing food worth just £3 or £4 if bought from ASDA.
With supermarket delivery slots increasingly difficult to secure, many students are left with two options: fork out these outrageous sums or go without food while waiting days for a delivery. One isolating student we spoke to had spent a week eating nothing but pasta and cereal, unable to afford the extortionate food boxes.
In an attempt to remedy this, Lancaster University Labour Club (LULC) sent a letter to the university Vice Chancellor on Monday, October 5th outlining our concerns over this unacceptable price gouging. However, he has not dignified us with a response.
With no sign of change in university policy, we decided we needed to take action. We firmly believed the university’s cruel and ruthless approach needed to be challenged.
Our goal was to provide an alternative box containing a minimum of 3 days food provided at store cost. On October 7th, we put out our call to action and launched an online fundraiser with an initial goal of £250 to help subsidise prices further. Within 24 hours we had raised over £1,000, with notable figures from the Labour Party including deputy leader Angela Rayner, John McDonnell, Ian Lavery and Richard Burgon giving us their support.
Using social media, word of mouth and a brisk, socially distanced campus poster round, we’ve garnered a huge amount of responses. Dozens of students have shown solidarity by volunteering their time and skills to help make our plan a reality, particularly local social enterprise “Refillar” in sourcing the contents of our boxes.
With our initial funding goal quintupled, we have been able to supply all boxes so far completely free. For this we are thankful, as demand is incredibly high. This is especially true of international students, who travelled to the Sunday Times’ “International University of the Year 2020” only to be trapped in their rooms with nothing to eat.
One student isolating on campus described the university’s actions as “very worrying” and said LULC’s food initiative “reassured and helped me out a lot.” More than anything we hope we can continue at no cost, so that everyone is afforded a basic right to food regardless of their financial state.
The university has since removed their rip-off boxes from their website, yet they have neither apologised nor provided a replacement scheme for isolating students. This limbo is disastrous, as aside from our small group, students could have nowhere to access food.
Despite taking thousands of pounds from each student and hundreds of millions as an institution, the university has offered no financially accessible way for students to meet basic needs. The marketisation of universities has proved detrimental for the health and welfare of students, with management’s ruthless chasing of profit hitting a point where even feeding students is not treated as a priority.
Yet despite this negligence, we want to prove that student solidarity can overcome their shortfalls. Inspired by socialism and a commitment to the good of the community, we have seen amazing results working with students and staff alike in the face of executive decisions. Jack London defined socialism as a “system whereby more [people] can get food to eat.” We intend to back that to the hilt.
If Lancaster University is to take one thing away from this affair, let it be this: universities obsessed with ranking tables should spend a little more time worrying about where they rank on Covid-19 infection rates and student dissatisfaction.