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Harris Manchester JCR President Rusticates After Being Denied COVID Relief Fund

Image: Arlosh Quad, Harris Manchester College, against a blue sky.

In the third week of Michaelmas term the president of the Harris Manchester JCR will be rusticating due to financial hardships. Like most students over the long vacation, Scott, a PPE finalist, had his income and savings diminished by the COVID-19 lockdown. He applied for financial relief through the University’s COVID-19 relief fund – but was denied. I spoke to Scott about his situation. 

Are you rusticating primarily for financial reasons? 

Yeah, almost exclusively. I’m hoping to see a bright side in the whole situation, and get some time for revision and general self-care during my suspension as well, but if I hadn’t lost my summer and easter vacation income, I don’t think I’d be suspending.

Can you talk about how the COVID-19 lockdown affected your finances over the long vacation? 

I’m almost entirely self-funded here at Oxford, so I’m quite vulnerable to any unexpected shifts in income or expenditure. I always work during the vacations to pay my way during term-time. I had a fairly well-paid internship lined up for the summer and was expecting to work locally during the Easter vacation, but both were cancelled due to COVID. My summer internship provider was kind enough to make a full-time offer for after Uni, though.

I understand that the university declined to give you financial relief through the COVID-19 relief fund. Can you talk about that process and why you think they rejected you? 

The process was straightforward and non-invasive. I was asked to say how much my finances had been impacted by COVID, to which I gave the amount of money my internship and other employment would have given me, and how my expenditure may have changed, to which I honestly replied ‘not much at all’. Still, though, I was reporting a four to five thousand pound shortfall due to lost income.

It was a surprise, being denied. Up until this point the University had been very generous with its money; I received some hardship money in my first year, and some money from the estranged students fund in my second year. Everybody I know personally who applied was also denied.

It was a surprise, being denied. Up until this point the University had been very generous with its money […]. Everybody I know personally who applied was also denied.

When I asked for an explanation as to why, they referred to the other need-based awards University had given me previously, which was a low blow. It’s true that I’ve received money from the University before, and I was very grateful for it, but this was an obvious and drastic change in circumstances.

I suspect, but have no way to confirm, that I was denied because the wording of the hardship fund states that it is meant to help students reach the end of the academic year, whereas the worst of my income loss would happen in the summer, between Trinity and Michaelmas. Never mind that losing income in the Summer would prevent me starting my studies in the following academic year.

Did your college, Harris Manchester, offer to help in any way? 

Harris Manchester has been hugely supportive at every step, and always have been during my time at Oxford. We’re not a wealthy college by any stretch, but they’ve made money available when I need it, and been a great help in applying to the central University. When my COVID relief application was denied, they made sure I knew what assistance they could make available to help me through, but by that point I’d been offered a great work from home contract by a previous employer, so I decided that would be that path of least resistance (and least risk).

How do you think your departure midterm is going to affect the operation of the HMC JCR and the life of the students? 

I do feel guilty leaving with half a term left in my term as president, especially at a time when representing the students to the college is so critically important. That said, I have always tried to be hands-off with the committee and I know they’ll continue to do a fantastic job in my absence, and whoever my replacement is, they’ll have my full support. I’m staying in Oxford for the next year anyway, so they can drop me a message any time. 

How is your replacement going to be selected? 

That’s to be determined. Our constitution calls for a by-election, but given the nature of the domestic arrangements this term, I worry that there will be very little interest in the role. One of my election promises was to look into rewriting out JCR Constitution, and I may look at adding a clause by which the Presidency is inherited by the Vice President in the event that the position becomes vacant so close to normal elections.

Are you upset with the university for refusing to recognise your situation? Is there anything you would like to say to them directly?

I have not heard good things about the way that the COVID relief fund was handled. I’d like to hear a statement from the University addressing these concerns, which I know are shared fairly widely. 

I have not heard good things about the way that the COVID relief fund was handled. I’d like to hear a statement from the University addressing these concerns, which I know are shared fairly widely. 

Do you think your studies are going to be negatively affected as a result of your rustication? 

No, I think by staying in Oxford and having a good relationship with the students in the year below me, I’ll be able to come back in good academic standing. 

How will you be supporting yourself during your suspension? 

Before beginning my degree, I worked as a software developer. During the summer as I was panicking and looking for work, a former coworker got in touch because a parcel had accidentally been delivered for me at the office. While on the phone, he mentioned that they were recruiting for a short-term work from home position, and I was able to get that role. Incredibly serendipitous, and it should see me through until Michaelmas 2021 and let me build my savings back up.

Image: Matthew Hoser, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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