France is scrambling to address the hardship and isolation experienced by students whose university years have been hijacked by the Covid-19 pandemic, with unions describing the government’s latest measures as too little, too late.
Aïssa, a bright young Senegalese student, arrived in France two years ago knowing she would carry the hopes and aspirations of her family, on top of her own.
“When your parents are far away, you learn to live with the pressure to succeed,” she says in an interview with FRANCE 24. Like many students, both French and foreign, Aïssa knew she would have to work to cover fees, rent and other expenses. She did not expect a global pandemic to throw her plans into disarray.
Last spring, the student lost her job due to the Covid-19 lockdown. She found another preparing online orders in a superstore, but the meagre wage meant she could no longer afford the hefty tuition fees at her engineering school in Marseille. So she dropped out and moved to Paris, where she enrolled in a cheaper master’s degree in finance, at the Sorbonne University.
“At first I stayed with a friend’s friend, who had me sleep on the floor and expected me to cook and do the cleaning,” she recalls. “Another young man saw my plea for help on Facebook and offered to put me up. But he soon asked for sexual favours in return, so I ran away at once.”
Thanks to student associations and social workers at the university, Aïssa now has a room in social housing – a huge relief, “even though it’s hard to study when you’re holed up in a single room all day long”, she says. She’s also found a job looking after disabled children at a local primary school, but she’s still hard up.
“I’ve applied for housing benefits, because I can barely pay the rent with the little money I earn,” she says. “If my application is turned down, I’ll soon be too poor to buy food.”
Being 20 in 2020
Such tales of hardship, solitude and uncertainty are becoming all too familiar to students on the cusp of adulthood, whose university years and future aspirations are being hijacked by the pandemic.
With French universities in limbo amid the latest resurgence in Covid-19 infections, alarm bells are ringing over the social, psychological and academic consequences of months of lockdowns, curfews and online teaching for students holed up in cramped dwellings many can ill afford.
Addressing their plight back in October, French President Emmanuel Macron said it was “hard to be 20 in 2020”. Others have spoken of a “lost” or “sacrificed” generation, anguished by disrupted studies and uncertain job prospects, and deprived of revelling.
UNEF, France’s leading student union, has warned of the “extreme fragility” of students across the country. It cited a study by Nightline, a student helpline, according to which as many as 22% of students who seek help have harboured suicidal thoughts.
In a study carried out in the wake of France’s first nationwide lockdown, the state-appointed National Observatory of Student Life (OVE) noted a 50 percent increase in the number of students presenting “signs of psychological distress”.
“It’s very rare to register that big an increase, and one can only assume that the situation has worsened considerably since then,” said the observatory’s director, Feres Belghith, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Belghith said women, foreign students and those experiencing financial hardship were disproportionately affected. “The pandemic has proved especially challenging for foreign students deprived of the financial and psychological support of their families,” he explained.
The distress experienced by many students made shocking headlines last week after a student leapt from the fourth floor of his university residence in the eastern city of Lyon. He remains in a critical condition. Days later, a fellow student at a nearby university was restrained after threatening to jump out of her window.
Writing on Facebook shortly after the first suicide attempt, Romain Narbonnet, a classmate of the student in hospital, stressed the “social isolation” experienced by students. He also questioned the decision to keep schools open while shutting down universities.
“We are holed up 24/7 in rooms no larger than prison cells […]. How much can a student endure?” Narbonnet asked. “It is vital to keep schools open, but somehow universities and students are of secondary importance. The truth is, we’ve been left by the wayside.”
On Wednesday, thousands of students rallied across France to call for university campuses to reopen. Many pleaded for a return to the rotating scheme that was in place ahead of the country’s second nationwide lockdown, with students alternating between online and classroom teaching.
At a Paris protest, UNEF president Mélanie Luce, said classes should be opened for “all students”, even if it meant having to recruit more teachers in order to hold class twice over with reduced groups. “We think the government does not understand the magnitude of the situation,” she added.
Students have raged for months over what they perceive as the government’s neglect of their predicament, while some ministers’ outings have only stoked the anger.
Last week, Frédérique Vidal, the higher education minister, sparked fury by arguing that, “the trouble is not giving classes in lecture halls, but the student who goes for a coffee break, the sweet left on a table or the sandwich with friends at the cafeteria.”
The “sweet left on a table” quip instantly went viral on social media. Many saw it as indicative of the contempt with which they have been treated throughout the pandemic – first singled out as virus-spreaders and then confined to the solitude of their rooms, even as schools are kept open to ensure parents can return to work.
“It wasn’t so long ago that we were being blamed for the spread of the pandemic. Now we are treated like children who cannot resist picking up a sweet on a table,” read an open letter penned by several students and posted on Twitter with the hashtag #GhostStudents. “After months of the pandemic, it seems the rationale for keeping universities shut rests on a collective inability to eat a sandwich properly,” the letter added.
Macron’s olive branch
Students in France’s universities – or facs, as they are commonly called – are also fuming over longstanding inequalities that the pandemic has exacerbated, some of them specific to the French model. Thus, while students are barred from university campuses, their peers attending so-called “prépas” (or preparatory) classes – the traditional path towards enrolling in one of France’s elite grande écoles – face no such restrictions.
“This breach of equality appears to trouble neither the [higher education] minister nor the prime minister,” wrote French daily Le Monde in a scathing editorial earlier this month, noting that Prime Minister Jean Castex had “not one word for higher education” in a wide-ranging press conference on pandemic measures.
Ministers have since sought to make amends, with Castex stressing last week that students’ hardship is “a major concern for the government” and Vidal announcing that first-year students would begin returning to university in “small groups” from January 25.
On Thursday, Macron announced further measures during a visit to the Paris-Saclay University south of Paris. He said students would be allowed to return to campus one day a week, provided lecture halls and classrooms don’t exceed 20% capacity.
“A student should have the same rights as a worker,” said the French president as he took questions from the handful of students present. “If he needs to, he should be able to return to university one day a week.”
Macron said he would look to ensure all students have access to one-euro meals twice a day at university cafeterias, some of which remain open for takeaway meals. He promised a mechanism to ensure students have access to psychological support free of charge.
However, Macron cautioned that there would be no “return to normal” before the start of the next academic year. He added: “I’ll be honest with you, the coming weeks will be rather difficult.”
‘We won’t go quietly’
Thursday’s announcements were broadly welcomed by the representative body of French university chairs, which hoped they would offer students “a measure of stability in the medium term”.
But Macron’s measures alone are unlikely to quell the anger, nor temper students’ anxiety.
The one-euro meals “are a step in the right direction, but they’re six months late”, says Maryam Pougetoux, UNEF’s deputy head, stressing the “discrepancy between the urgency of the situation and the government’s belated action”.
Pougetoux notes that the measure will be of little benefit to the many students who have left university residences because they could not afford the rent, and are thus no longer close to student cafeterias. She also flagged the fact that the meals will be available “on demand”, a vague wording that suggests the sort of procedural snag that makes French universities so hard to navigate – for foreign students in particular.
Macron’s announcements are “indicative of the government’s strategy of making occasional announcements that target some people but fail to address the broader problems”, Pougetoux told FRANCE 24. “The result is a succession of small measures that give students no visibility for the months ahead.”
UNEF’s deputy head says a 1.5 billion euro ($1.8 billion) emergency plan is necessary to “respond both to the current emergency and implement structural reform”. The plan would involve an immediate raise in grants and help to pay for accommodation.
“Just days ago, Castex said universities would only reopen for some first-year students, and now Macron has paved the way for others to return too,” said Pougetoux, for whom the latest concessions are evidence that students are finally succeeding in getting their message across. She adds: “The government is starting to understand that we won’t go quietly.”