Clash of Comments: Should the University of York receive the University of the Year Award?


Emily Hewat and Josh Cole battle it out in this edition's Clash of Comments, discussing whether York truly deserves the University of the Year Award.

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Image by Arian Kriesch

By Emily Hewat and Josh Cole

YES - Emily Hewat

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ecstatic with how my university experience has been over the last two years considering the online teaching, the strikes, the mixed messaging, the timetable delays...I could go on. But thankfully this award is not for “Best University Experience Ever”, it’s for how the university has acted over the last 12 months, and, if we’re being honest, the bar hasn’t been set very high.

For example, to be in the running for Univer-sity of the Year, universities should probably be promising face to face teaching at the very minimum and yet according to The Times, York is one of only four of the top 27 UK universities that is expecting a full return to face-to-face teaching. That statistic alone wipes most of the “prestigious” universities out of the running.

Then we have some of the graver controversies surrounding universities this year. No one could forget the scenes from Manchester where students were fenced into their accommodation and subjected to police patrols. In a year of students being treated as villains for contracting a highly contagious virus, the scenes at Fallowfield represented the attitude of most universities. Some University of Cambridge colleges, as another example, required physical proof that students’ mental health was suffering at home before they were allowed to return to their accom-modation and for most, the proof was deemed insufficient. And of course despite protests, every single UK university has chosen to charge full tuition fees throughout the pandemic.

But we shouldn’t just look at what other universities have done wrong. At the time of writing, the University of York student body has a 90 percent vaccination rate (and is one of the few universities willing to share this information) with a plan in place to offer vaccinations to any students who wish to have one. Over the past year, the newspapers have thoroughly enjoyed presenting students as irresponsible super spreaders who desire nothing more than parties, but the University of York has attempted to combat this stereotype, with our YUSU President appearing on the news, even if he was mistaken for York St John’s Union President. Testing has been equally successful with the University opening its doors to the wider York community and offering an incentive of free coffee to students during the exam period was never going to be a bad idea.

Away from the pandemic, the University has had other successes. It is a University of Sanctuary meaning it provides a safe home for refugees and asylum seekers and the Equal Access Scholarship allows refugees to study without paying tuition fees. Sustainability is another victory; the Yorcup scheme has reduced cup waste and their focus on reducing fossil fuels does hit at the heart of an issue a lot of students do care about. Equally, vegan catering has dramatically improved since I was a fresher, which caters for the sizeable increase in students going veggie for environmentally conscious reasons.

We may have grumbled about having to go without food in the library, but at least we were able to access the building for the full academic year. We may have sat shivering in the Forest, but at least we had an outdoor venue, which is more than most university students can say. In what has been an abysmal year for students everywhere, as reluctant as I am to admit it, the Uni has got a lot right.

NO - Josh Cole

The challenges that Covid has thrown at students and universities alike have been like no other. Compared to many of our peers, York has performed well. However, University of the Year suggests the recipient has to have been truly exceptional in some capacity. With the vast bulk of universities in the UK setting the bar so spectacularly low, we shouldn’t allow this to colour our view of what ‘exceptional’ really means.

York was certainly on top of things like communicating with students, ensuring access to the library and providing full online learning within a week of the pandemic starting. Yet such actions were some of the very basic things that Student Unions across the country called for at the start of the pandemic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that York has done as much as this. When compared to the experiences of some of my school friends from other universities, York has done well. However, throughout the past 18 months the University has continued to demand full fees whilst seriously cutting back the provision for many students. The idea that science undergraduates can be told they are having a full academic experience whilst going through nearly the full academic year without setting foot in a lab comes across as an example of glaring hypocrisy. The ease at which York has dismissed student concerns about value for money must surely stand as a fault in York’s response to Covid. Time after time the Vice Chancellor stated that students felt as if online teaching was just as good as in person. However, the student body frequently expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of online learning and how students’ academic experience suffered as a result.

Aside from this, there are serious issues on which the University has fallen short over the past year, particularly around student safety. The decision to close all college reception services overnight and leave one roaming team for each campus means that first-year students will not have the peace of mind that older students had. The University’s reasoning for doing this was centred on necessary budget savings, however questions must surely be asked about the University’s commitment to student safety when such a vital service like this was cut.

Furthermore, Nouse reported last academic year that the University had to be petitioned by the sexual assault pressure group ‘The Last Taboo’ to investigate why two PhD students had regular access to students after convictions of assault. These are undoubtedly major failings by the University and are suggestive of a consistent failure to properly deal with serious student safety concerns. Furthermore, on page 11of this edition, Kendra Williams rightly raises the issues around placing freshers in accommodation in Hull and the lack of answers the University has for ensuring that freshers are not stranded after nights out if they miss one of the few shuttle buses.

The past year has been extraordinarily challenging and the University must be commended for how it has performed. However, has it really been exceptional enough to deserve ‘University of the Year’? I don’t think it has. Fulfilling its core obligations to students shouldn’t count as exceptional and its particular failings in areas like student safety mean that unfortunately, York does not deserve this award.