Sunday, 25 Jul 2021

I spent £10,000 to go to university for just eight hours of in-person learning

The second I found out I’d been accepted onto one of the best MA programmes in the world for screenwriting, I was in a rundown pub in Whitby.

I hugged my best friend Iggy Pop – a cocker spaniel, not the shirtless rockstar – and cried. Things like this don’t often happen to working class kids like me.

A month later, the country shut down because of coronavirus and I was naïvely convinced the pandemic would soon be a thing of the past so that come October, I could move to university.

I gradually realised that wasn’t going to happen when Boris Johnson kept putting us in and out of lockdown, as if the preservation of human life was a sick game of Hokey Cokey.

A couple of months before the course began, I was told by the programme leader that deferrals were not permitted and I would have to reapply the following year if I wasn’t happy with temporary online learning for term one, and then a hybrid mix of on campus and online classes for term two, with the hope of easing into all in-person sessions for term three.

So in fear of not receiving this opportunity again, I decided to plough on.

The prime minister told students to make the move to university (regardless of the rising Covid-19 cases at the time) and like many others, I did as instructed and moved into a student flat share.

I also (depressingly) made the move to feel like I was still getting that university experience. 

It was predicted by the course leaders that we would begin to have face-to-face lessons in the second term, so I thought I should get settled in for a few months beforehand (however it remained online for the full academic year). 

It hurt to discover that while me and my pixelated course mates were dealing with screen-induced migraines and dodgy WiFi, students on different courses were allowed to attend in person classes. It felt like we were being penalised just because of the remote nature of writing.   

Within the first three months of study, I lost my life savings – all to rent and bills. After my student loan was devoured by the disgustingly high university fees, I had peanuts left to live on.

I could only make it work if I got a job in tandem with my demanding MA, but after businesses started shutting down again in October, the job market was virtually non-existent.

I applied for lots of key worker positions mainly in supermarkets  – alongside the rest of the unemployed – but I was unsuccessful.

I sought help from Universal Credit in October, but they also turned me away and told me my student status meant I was not entitled to financial aid because of my existing loans.

They linked me to Citizens Advice before automatically closing my case a few days later and after being on hold for two hours, a woman told me: ‘You’ve slipped through the net. I’m sorry but there’s nothing we can do.’ 

This crushed me. It felt like I was drowning and the government was stood there holding a lifebuoy but refusing to throw it, watching me flail and sink.

I had been passed around by many unhelpful people like a problematic hot potato.

I couldn’t afford to eat so I pretended to self-scan bread at supermarkets, fulfilling all my negative class stereotypes.

But at least I was getting a sufficient education during this trying time, right? Wrong. I have paid almost £10,000 to go into the university for only eight hours of in-person classes during the full academic year.

The rest of the time I had a 2D Zoom education, which in my view pales in comparison to what a true education should look like. 

Across the country lecturers have gone from saying: I know my lessons are recorded and posted online, but it’s not the same – you must attend, to: An online education is the same, if not better!

We are not stupid. We see right through the lie and know that if they admit the truth it confirms we should receive a refund. 

I have probably managed to retain only a quarter of the information spoken at me through a screen during my study, and it has been made very clear by the university that a partial refund will not be granted, despite a request from the students’ union.

Instead of million-pound institutions taking a financial blow, poor students have to suffer instead. If anything, it seems that universities have had an increase in income as some institutions proclaim their ‘exclusive’ programmes (like mine) have doubled in size.

I’ve been told by lecturers that they decided to take on extra students since it’s mostly online and approximately half of the pupils on the course are international, which means they pay just over double the fees.

Meanwhile, as this ordeal left me penniless, I had no way of paying rent so I had to be stripped of my independence and move back into my family home in Bradford at the beginning of 2021.

Instead of million-pound institutions taking a financial blow, poor students have to suffer instead

I suppose I’m lucky to have that as an option – as many others do not – but my mental health suffered severely because moving back comes with many complications. Unfortunately my family unit isn’t all peaches and cream.

I now continue to study from my five foot-high box attic childhood bedroom at the age of 24, surrounded by posters of Jack Sparrow and Hello Kitty, with a slab of wood over my single bed that I use as a desk.

All I’m trying to do is learn, achieve my dream and write stories for the screen. Why do I have to constantly fight against the tide to simply hold down a seat at the table, just because I have less money?

Growing up, I wondered why I didn’t see many people like me working in the film industry: Only 16% of people in creative industries are from low socio-economic backgrounds.

We are all too familiar with the class bias, which is persistently reinforced by the government, but this past year has really put it into perspective – especially for students. We have lost more than loved ones during the pandemic.

The past few years have been horrendously damaging and draining for art students – mentally and financially, short and long term. 

It has reiterated the obvious need for change, starting with reducing university fees.

The government needs to respect and recognise upcoming artists from all backgrounds by lowering financial barriers, otherwise it remains an elitist, nepotistic club that deprives the world of incredible work from a class of grafters. 

Artists of all mediums already feel oppressed with the funding cuts, yet we continue to be exploited for our work. (Your favourite novel or Netflix show wasn’t brought to you by someone in cyber, Boris). 

Saying ‘you’ve slipped through the net’ is not a solution to these issues in the slightest, it only emphasises the flaw within the system.

Those who have attended university amidst the pandemic need a partial refund. Give us something back to help make up for all we have lost.

We should not be worrying about homelessness or hunger when we are trying to better ourselves and learn. 

My plan moving forward is to keep working from my box room, finish my Masters Degree at the end of the year and move to London where I will apply for any and every film, TV and screenwriting gig. 

Right now I continue to fill out applications for scholarships, funds and bursaries for struggling students, so I can regain independence and improve my mental health as soon as possible. Sadly the success rate for financial aid isn’t great. 

It has to be said that I am so proud to be a working class, Northern lass. I have seen the strength of the human spirit, blistering hard work and the meaning of true empathy – something the government and high-class institutions seem to lack. 

This has been the most difficult year of my life and as a result I am going to be in debt for the foreseeable future; I will soon begin to gradually pay back the loan for my insufficient education for decades to come, which yet again, is another almighty kick in the teeth.

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