Unrest from students has exposed a gap in government support for universities throughout the pandemic, and a very limited acknowledgement of students’ unique issues.

Students have lost out in a range of areas: accommodation contracts, payment for services not received, academic assessment. Mitigations have been put in place for other groups, where university students have been neglected. With each stage of the pandemic, trust has been broken between students and universities; and between students and government.

A picture of University of Leeds Buildings

As Covid-19 has affected student experience, it has also shifted the ground of student democracy, at times in exciting directions and in ways that may have significant effects on democratic involvement by students in the long term.

We have really felt the value of our voice in meetings with members of the University Executive Group, Council and Senate, amplifying the experience of students.

University decision making

As one of a number of elected Student Executive Officers of Leeds University Union (LUU), the democratic voice of students has been key to our collaborations with the University as we have all tried to respond to the pandemic. The rapid changes throughout the past year have necessitated close working between the Students’ Union and the University, as decisions which might have previously taken months or even years to implement have been quickly rolled out. We have really felt the value of our voice in meetings with members of the University Executive Group, Council and Senate, amplifying the experience of students. We are all going through things we have never known before and could never have predicted. It feels like this has had a positive impact on how our voice in these meetings is not only listened to but incorporated into decision making. This is a win for student democracy and it will be important for us to reflect on how the student voice can be sustained post-Covid.

Student participation

As student representatives, we have had to work creatively to gather the insights to inform this advocacy for students. We’ve obviously done a lot of online work through specific platforms and surveys which supplement anecdotal feedback, and trends spotted by our advice teams. This has helped us reveal frequently asked questions and recurring concerns.

I’m optimistic that running our forums digitally, and continuing to explore the flexibility, convenience and accessibility which online engagement provides, will drive increased interest in the Union’s democratic processes.

LUU is particularly well-known for, and proud of, its Better Forums. Years back we radically altered our Union democracy. Any student can submit an idea which is presented to a panel of 16 randomly selected students to consider and vote on whether it should become Union policy for the following three years. Like others have discussed in this blog series, we’ve had to run these forums online for a year now, and we’ve discovered a lot of benefits to this new format. Use of the chat function has enabled lots of contributions from the Student Reps and members of the Exec in attendance, and many students presenting ideas found speaking online more accessible and less daunting. It has also aided time keeping for the Forum Facilitator which hopefully makes the forums more appealing for students to attend. Running our Forums digitally presents additional opportunities for sharing the discussions and outcomes more widely with the rest of the student body. More students can also attend as observers, without the same impact of overwhelming the panel or idea holder which might have been the case had we crowded the physical space. I’m optimistic that running our forums digitally, and continuing to explore the flexibility, convenience and accessibility which online engagement provides, will drive increased interest in the Union’s democratic processes.

Campaigning

A final area of student democracy that has increased this year is campaigning. I’m hesitant to celebrate this activity, as whilst it is exciting to see students becoming more politically engaged, this is born out of frustration with their situations. Where students are angry at how their time at university has been affected by the pandemic, they are looking for ways to influence and improve this experience. Coming into the second term, we saw increased noise across social media from students supporting two campaigns: Cut the Rent Leeds which is calling for better support for students who are paying rent for accommodation, and Save Our Grades, that is demanding sufficient mitigation of the compromises to their academic studies. Again, political activity has moved online, in the form of petitions, open letters and social media campaigning.

We should not underestimate the challenge of involving students in decision making going forward, after many have felt so ignored.

On a national scale, students are also questioning whether they have received value for money this year. I am hearing repeatedly from students who are challenging how their tuition fees are being spent, when their access to campus facilities and face-to-face teaching has been severely limited. Ultimately, many students feel like they are not getting the service which they are paying for and were expecting, yet they are not protected by the same rights as most consumers enjoy.

Rebuilding trust

We should not underestimate the challenge of involving students in decision making going forward, after many have felt so ignored. Delays or gaps in government support for students has driven a rift between students and their universities. Students not only need to be given opportunities to contribute to short, medium and long-term Covid-19 response, they must see actions as a result. Rebuilding trust between students and their universities must be a priority, and the limitations that Covid-19 has exposed by years of marketisation of the higher education system need to be challenged.

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.

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Isobel Walter is the Union Affairs Officer at Leeds University Union this year, one of seven elected student executive officers. Isobel studied English Literature and Theatre Studies at the University of Leeds, and graduated in 2020. Isobel is passionate about helping every student to get the most out of their time as a Leeds student and as a member of their students’ union!