Isle of Man students set up their own student union

02/06/2020

Feeling underrepresented living in the Isle of Man, two students have set up their own students union - named the Manx Student Union - to help other students like them during this crisis

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Image by Manx Student Union

By Eloise McMinn Mitchell

In the wake of student-led petitions amassing over 300,000 for refunds for tuition fees due to the disruption to teaching in the last year, many University students across the UK are feeling frustrated by the lack of concern or sympathy towards their struggles. Refund rejections come atop wider concerns to do with students still paying rent and bills on properties they are not living in due to evacuating back to their families for the lockdown, and the impending challenge of recovering belongings left behind in these properties before the tenancy ends.

Two students of the Isle of Man have felt so underrepresented and unheard that they have formed their own Students’ Union to try and make themselves heard. They want to ask the authorities how they will accommodate students that have been affected by the pandemic and COVID-19 restrictions, including issues like collecting belongings left at University and potentially being refused entry back onto the island.

Students living outside of the mainland UK are faced with further frustration, as they face greater travel restrictions and time zone complications that make online learning and the challenge of studying remotely insurmountable. University of York Politics with International Relations student Catherine Woolley lives on the Isle of Man, and has felt she and other students on the Island have been underrepresented. A UK-wide petition which attained over 300,000 signatures – where 100,000 signatures guarantees the petition being presented before parliament – demanded full refunds for the past academic year of University, to which the Government responded it was aware of the frustration of students and hoped to help them complete their studies. A similar petition asking for refunds for the third term attracted 105,000 signatures and received a comparable response of acknowledgement of difficulty and frustration. This comes on top of students having to pay rent for housing they may no longer be residents of, and the stress of having to complete the academic year with an entirely new and difficult system of teaching.

Catherine Woolley, a Politics with International Relations student at the University of York has spent the last academic year at the University of Warsaw in Poland until her year abroad was cut short by travel restrictions and Covid-19. Since returning to the Isle of Man, she has dealt with many of the same stresses as other students from the University of York, with the added stress that on the academic side, her ‘safety net’ was far less straightforward than for students who have been in York for the past year. The Isle of Man has a population of 85,000 where 81.8% of the population is 64 or younger – 16.6% are under the age of 15. There is a high proportion of the population that are in the younger age demographics, and Catherine is not alone in feeling frustrated.

Catherine and Alaia Nicholson, an English Literature student at the University of St Andrews founded the Manx Students’ Union. They work with a small team of moderators and already have 150 members, roughly 10% of the student population (based on population estimates they have found). Catherine and Alaia hope this will be a foundation: “we need to expand our student base before we are able to develop the team into a more conventional type of organisation. We have made clear the objective of MSU in our manifesto, but are desperate to work with and for students, so are open to suggestions. It is an informal union in every sense”. Their manifesto outlines wanting to create student social standards equal to the UK, confront welfare issues unique to Island students and provide up to date information concerning student finances. The Isle of Man government encourages students to continue into higher education, with the hope they will return to the island following their studies. However, students often do not return, and Catherine and Alaia explain this is because of “the cost of transport and a lacking social scene. We want to empower the youth culture of the Island to make the changes it needs to see and create a community which makes higher education more accessible”.

The Manx Students’ Union (MSU) was established “to help create a more welcoming environment for those returning from university to the island”. Before this, there was no unified student representative organisation present on the Isle of Man. Where other locations have student discounts or more opportunities for students to socialise, there is no such system on the island. An added challenge is that some students from the Isle of Man are treated as international because they are not considered home-fee-status students, which raises many technical issues for those students on and off the island. With the potential for having to begin the next term working from home for many students, this is the ideal time to establish an SU that can support students. Catherine and Alaia want the Island “to catch up” with the social expectations around student life in the UK.

COVID-19 has caused significant barriers to normal life on the Isle of Man. The borders have been closed since late March, and whilst it is possible to leave the island, returning is very difficult. Catherine and Alaia say “there is a waiting list for entry and once you arrive you must adhere to a mandatory quarantine period of 2 weeks - and everyone in your household must isolate”. Although the island has had no new cases in the past two weeks and restrictions are slowly easing, Catherine and Alaia are cautious about things returning to normal and are working hard to make it support students collecting their belongings from abroad or the mainland. They are putting students in touch with the island’s Department of Education, Sport and Culture, hoping to help solve the issue. In addition to this, they are sharing mental health resources and keeping students informed about COVID-19 and what restrictions are. The efforts of Catherine and Alaia are further examples of student reactions to COVID-19 and having to find ways to be heard and improve life for students.
Links to their social media page and group can be found below:

https://www.facebook.com/manxstudentsunion.news
https://www.facebook.com/groups/258325635540557/