Comment Editor Chelsie Henshaw recounts her disappointing experience with UoB’s handling of year abroads for language students, arguing that the university has failed to provide clarity and highlighted wealth disparities amongst students

Written by Chelsie Henshaw
Images by Elliot Brown

During lockdown, the university has consistently changed its stance on the year abroad for languages students. From telling us that semester one would not be abroad, to advising that students start planning their year abroad, to denying us permission to go abroad after the change in FCO advice, the university has sent out an increasingly confusing message. This lack of clarity combined with the university’s scarce communication, has resulted in difficulties for many and has been described by one student I spoke to as ‘terrible.’ It is time that the university does more to assist students, especially those who are unable to complete a compulsory element of their degree.

I would argue that there are many things that the University of Birmingham (UoB) has failed us on. First off, the university has neglected to understand the impacts of their decision on those due to go abroad. A complete lack of mental health support has been offered, even though the mental health of many has arguably declined. One Modern Languages student, Emma Velho, admits that ‘the extreme lack of communication from our department has posed a lot of anxiety’ for her, especially due to the ‘constant unknown and uncertainty.’ Surely the university understands that this odd situation we find ourselves in certainly results in worsening mental health? You would think that in a situation like this, more support would be offered to students, when in fact, it seems the opposite has happened. Throughout August, whilst students were trying to come to terms with the fact that the university had now denied them permission to go abroad, many tutors and members of the department were unavailable to email. Now, I understand that our lecturers and tutors deserve time off from work, but surely there should have been someone available to respond to the many emails of panicked students?

The university has neglected to understand the impacts of their decision on those due to go abroad

The university has also failed to recognise the implications of cancelling semester one for its students from lower-income backgrounds. A prime example of this is the fact that whilst the university encouraged students to book accommodation and flights over the summer, their insurance will not cover these costs. Therefore, now that the university has changed its decision, some students will lose money from deposits and booked flights. It seems to me that UoB breeds a certain level of classism, as those higher up seemingly forget about the ways financial disadvantages lead to a detriment in education. Whilst I am aware that the university does offer some bursaries for lower-income students, I believe that additional support should have been provided. For example, after being told physical mobility was not happening in semester one, students were essentially given two choices for accommodation: you could either stay at home or fork out on one of the university’s most luxurious and expensive halls, Mason. Year Abroad students were offered the £163 a week ensuite accommodation and told that no other halls of residence would be offered to them. To me, this is an example of the university’s complete disregard of those who come from low-income families.

For many, remaining at home whilst attempting to complete a degree is not possible due to situational circumstances such as sharing a bedroom and not having access to a desk. However, the same students who do not have living situations suitable for studying at home are of course more likely to be the ones who cannot afford to pay for halls as expensive as Mason. Yet, the university failed to take this into account as they demanded that students pay the rent for Mason upfront for the semester if they were to move into the halls, something which is not feasible for certain people. One student I spoke to, who was unable to afford Mason, has been forced into staying in an AirBnB instead. UoB’s lack of sufficient help has led to students having to seek out their own temporary accommodation, a taxing and stressful task.

This is an example of the university’s complete disregard of those who come from low-income families

Furthermore, we were advised that as soon as the FCO advice changed, to travel abroad immediately. There are two problems with this. Primarily, some cannot afford to just get a last-minute flight and travel to a different country, again demonstrating the university’s negligence of working-class students. Secondly, moving abroad takes a lot of preparation, and for those with medical conditions especially, a certain amount of time is needed to organise oneself before travelling to a different country. Additionally, those who had university placements abroad, a large percentage of students, are not able to travel mid-semester if the situation changes, as after the end of September/start of October university places are forfeited due to the fact that joining a course midway through the semester would be too difficult. Why is the year abroad department recommending this course of action when it is far from realistic?

Why are the year abroad department recommending this course of action when it is far from realistic?

In terms of missing the physical year abroad itself, the university’s solution is to provide their own classes for those who have remained in the UK. Whilst in theory this sounds like a good idea, UoB’s execution of the plan has arguably been poor. Upon writing this article on 6 October, we are still to receive timetables for these online lessons which are due to commence on 12 October. This poor organisation has left many stressed, as they lack any concrete information on the classes to be delivered by the university. It must also be said that it seems a little late in the semester for classes to begin in the third week of term. Why could these provisions not have been implemented for the beginning of the semester? The difficulties surrounding the year abroad combined with the national lockdown and the earlier strikes by teaching staff mean language students now, more than ever, need support and teaching in order to maintain and improve their fluency. Also, it has been suggested that this ‘online learning’ will only consist of a small number of online classes a week, and I fail to see how this will be representative of a year abroad.

Some students have disregarded the university’s instructions and have instead continued to take up the placements abroad, a decision that can only be judged and made by the individual. It is understandable that some have chosen this risky route as the university’s online provisions are ambiguous and meagre at best. However, this decision of certain students to continue to travel abroad further highlights the wealth disparity between students attending the university. Students who have gone abroad have had to organise their own insurance (since their travel has not been supported by the university) and as we all know insurance does not come up cheap. Another student I spoke to has paid £900 for only five months of travel insurance, a ridiculous cost. The moral of the story: students from middle-class backgrounds have again had access to more opportunities than those from lower-income families. It is disappointing that UoB has failed to see that the year abroad situation has only made more apparent the wealth disparity between students.

The university has not provided adequate provisions for its students and has been seeming oblivious to the impacts their decision has had on the wealth gap between students, the differing levels of education received, and the mental health of many. This year is meant to be the best year of our degree, and was marketed as such, yet as one student states, the ‘year abroad has been a rollercoaster of disappointment and unsupported stress. From losing original placements, to cancelled back-up plans, to now currently no mobility at all, this has been an experience of extreme mental, physical and financial upset, one that has also left me feeling academically disadvantaged.’ I sincerely hope that over the next few weeks UoB supports year abroad students better than they previously have.

After contacting the university for comment on the situation, I received the following statement:

We very much regret the restrictions that Covid-19 has imposed on student mobility. The global pandemic has presented an enormously complex challenge for our students, staff and partner universities. The University of Birmingham continues to support student mobility as much as the situation permits. Staff have been doing everything possible to enable students to go abroad at the earliest opportunity, when it is safe to do so according to UK government advice, and when the situation at partner universities allows.
Our priority throughout has been and continues to be the safety and well-being of our students. We take our responsibility to approve study that minimises the risk to students with the utmost seriousness. 
We have developed study plans which address the required learning outcomes for those students who cannot travel; they will not be disadvantaged in their studies.
We regularly consult student representatives and provide a range of support for students whose travel plans have changed, including funds to assist students who experience financial hardship.

After reading the statement, my argument still stands. The university has failed Year Abroad students.

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