When the coronavirus pandemic hit Britain, students at the University of Arts London (UAL) were filled with anxiety. Not because their studies would be postponed for the foreseeable future – as has been the case for school children across the country – but because of the exact opposite: the university was going to continue with the term as normal.
Despite lockdown being announced on the 23rd of March, the university told students that courses would continue via remote learning, and graduation dates would remain the same. Simon Ofield-Kerr, the university's deputy vice-chancellor (academic), told students in a video emailed to them this week: "We had to respond really quickly and make some really fast decisions about closing our buildings, our workshops, our studios, delaying our graduation ceremonies, adapting our degree shows. We've done a huge amount of work to move all of our courses, all of your units, into remote delivery online learning."
UAL students' courses are to move online during the coronavirus pandemic, rather than pausing: "We do think it's important that we keep you on track," continued Ofield-Kerr in the video, "enable you to bank your degree and to move on with your lives." This seems to be the approach of other art universities, too. Glasgow School of Art (also to the dismay of its students) has introduced virtual learning for art students, while Leeds School of Art has replaced its physical end-of-year show with a digital one, and will be carrying on with the term.
Some UAL students, however, aren't happy. On the 16th of April, over 20 of them joined together to found #PauseorPay, a campaign lobbying the university to give students the option to either pause their course until it is safe to attend university, or if that's not possible, receive a refund for the term.
“A good way to explain [the issue] is a force majeure situation,” Dan Gower, a fine art student involved in the #PauseorPay campaign, tells me over the phone. “This is when both parties, in the event of a pandemic or some serious incident – in this case, the student body and the institution – should pause.”
UAL has not yet officially responded to the campaign's open letter, sent last week. However, in the video sent to students, Ofield-Kerr made it clear that the university was "not considering refunds", nor "considering requests for refunds that are based upon this transition from physical to online learning."
Gower says: “They're ploughing ahead and pushing through virtual learning without any consent or negotiations. It's never been tried before, and we're all paying.”
UAL is made up of six colleges: Camberwell College of Arts, Central Saint Martins, Chelsea College of Arts, London College of Communication, London College of Fashion and Wimbledon College of Arts. Among other degrees, it offers practical art and design courses that require the use of studio space, plus a physical end-of-year degree show that helps students to make connections in the art world. The coronavirus pandemic means that many of these facilities and career opportunities are no longer available.
“We're asking the university to pause studies and allow us to come back when it's safe to do so,” says Gower. “That's what quite a lot of people would like. Sometimes that doesn't work for some students, like international students. Failing the university's inability to pause, we should be given a partial reimbursement.”
VICE UK reached out to UAL, who told us: "Events have been moving at an unprecedented pace over the past few weeks, and many procedures which may normally have involved more consultation for students have required rapid decisions. We continue to work closely with Arts Students’ Union, as the elected representative body of our students, to make fair decisions during these unprecedented times."
"The university believes that ensuring students continue or complete their studies this academic year is the fairest and most equitable way forward," the UAL spokesperson continued. "We are putting in place a number of elements to ensure students realise their potential, achieve the right level of award, and the approval of these changes included consultation with our external examiners. "
A month ago, UAL students who would later go on found #PauseorPay launched a petition listing demands of the university during the coronavirus crisis. There are three: a grace period for deadlines and coursework, the guarantee of a physical degree show, and options for students who are against virtual learning, such as partial refunds, delays and visa extensions. The petition currently has over 1,500 signatures.
PauseorPay argues that continuing courses and expecting students to graduate as normal is in breach of the "enrolment terms and conditions" that UAL students agree to upon accepting their study offer. These conditions state that during an "event outside [your] control", obligations under the terms would pause and the course would restart "as soon as reasonably possible after the event outside [your] control is over."
While the UAL website states that it aims to offer students "a public showcase for your graduate work, subject to the course of the pandemic, to students and courses who want it," and has introduced virtual learning, #PauseorPay says that this isn’t a good enough substitute when many courses are student-led and studio-based.
UAL student Erica*, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that for international students, the stakes are even higher. “International students make up [39 percent] of UAL's student body,” she says over email. “The fees are large, but there is no real financial support from UAL.”
UAL does provide a financial hardship fund. However, Erica says that during the pandemic, it is logistically difficult to apply.
There’s also the issue of international student visas. “After graduation, we legally stop being students, so international students lose any ground on which they could get visas extended [and] poorer home students lose housing benefits and are forced to return home,” Erica says. “They promise us access to workshops and a degree show in autumn 2020, but there will be nobody left to participate, as international students will be forced out of the country in mid-October, and low-income home students won't be able to afford to live in London.”
On this subject, UAL told VICE UK: "We are planning an extensive virtual showcase for student work in the summer, followed by a venue-based showcase when government restrictions are lifted later in the year. We will work with every student to ensure that their ideas can be appropriately expressed in either show, regardless of attendance. This will enable students to participate no matter where they are in the world."
Erica concludes: “UAL claims to listen to individual circumstances. But in reality, it feels like I'm talking to a wall.”
Ultimately, the students behind #PauseorPay are asking to be involved in the conversation about how the university navigates coronavirus. The campaign has now gained the support of the elected students' union.
“There's a lot of anxiety,” says Gower. “A lot of people have really worked their arses off to pay for these courses, a lot of us have put all our finances into this. So, when we leave and graduate with no contacts and no final show, we're just going back to the place we started.”
“The final two months are kind of important – that's where you establish the real connections,” he continues. “That's the forming of the next stage in your career. Without that, it makes people quite anxious about where we're going to go next.”